Brighton Form: WWDDWW
Derby Form: WWWWWD
This Thursday marks the first leg of the lottery that is the Sky Bet Championship playoffs between Brighton and Derby at the Amex Stadium. It is undeniable that these are the two form sides in the playoffs with Derby being unbeaten in 6, winning 5, and Brighton being undefeated in 8. Despite the recent form of the two sides being rather similar, it is The Rams that go into the two legged tie the favourites. This is partly because the bookmakers see that Derby have been in and around the top 6 pretty much since Steve McClaren took charge in October. Indeed they were only out of the race for automatic promotion around 4 weeks before the end of the season. Derby go in the favourites but anyone with even half a brain knows that the playoffs are not won on form, they are won over two very hard fought legs.
Derby finished 13 points clear of the Seagulls in the final league table so Oscar Garcia knows what a tough task his side have on their hands on Thursday, with the return leg at the iPro on Sunday afternoon. Also, Derby have beaten Brighton twice already this season. They seem to hold the Indian sign over Brighton at the minute but Garcia will use the bitter disappointment that the squad faced last season in the playoffs, losing over two legs to eventual winner and bitter rivals Crystal Palace, to motivate and inspire. Surely this squad could not handle another crushing playoff semi-final defeat? Lesser players would have crumbled under that disappointment but this squad appears to possess incredible ‘bouncebackability’, as the saying goes, and are ready to hit Derby with everything with everything they have.
Brighton: Leo Ulloa.
Ulloa has scored 16 goals for Brighton this season and has been instrumental in their surge up the Championship table. A vital cog in the Brighton jigsaw, Ulloa also scored the last minute goal to send the Seagulls soaring into the playoffs at the expense of Reading. It might be harsh to say that a lot of his teams chances rest on his shoulders, but Ulloa has scored 10 more goals than the next top scorer on the club’s scoring chart. He is a huge danger when given any space in the 18 yard box, as was proven with his header against Nottingham Forest, and Derby centre backs Buxton and Keogh will have to be on their guard.
Derby: Craig Bryson.
Bryson was not judged to be in the top 10 players in the division when voting was announced earlier in the season, a decision met with anger from Derby fans and neutrals alike. Bryson, like Ulloa, has 16 goals to his name this season. There is however one huge aspect to consider. Bryson is a midfielder. His form this season has been nothing short of sensational. His box to box style is contrasted beautifully by the creativity of either the mercurial Will Hughes or Irish international Jeff Hendrick. Any success that Derby will experience in the playoffs will come down to the connection between Bryson and 20-goal Chris Martin.
Derby are the highest scoring team in the division this season, playing football that at times has drawn comparisons with Barcelona. A massive aspect of this tie will be Brighton’s ability to stop the rampant Rams’ attacking force. Chris Martin is the typical old fashioned centre forward and Matt Upson will have to use all his nous and experience to ensure Martin is not dictating the pace of the game. If he can hold the ball up and get Bryson and Russell involved in the game, then there could be serious danger for the Seagulls.
The evidence would suggest that Brighton have as good a chance as anyone at stopping Derby scoring and simply turning them over. Brighton are a good side and can beat anybody on their day, as they have proven all season long. It is vital that Ulloa is in the game on Thursday. He will make things happen in and around the box. If there is an area of Derby’s game that has let them down it has been their inability to kill teams off so Brighton know that if they fire everything at The Rams, it could well be their year.
I expect Derby to come out flying. They will want something to take back to the iPro on Sunday. I think that Derby will fancy themselves against anyone at home. The iPro has been a fortress and if they have anything to protect then I suspect they might just have too much. Derby need to be wary however. The team that sneaks into the playoffs are often the team that nobody wants to play and Brighton are certainly no mugs. They are dangerous.
Brighton 1-2 Derby 1st leg.
Derby 2-0 Brighton 2nd leg.