A day after Hull City were confirmed as the final team to drop out of the Premier League, Middlesbrough and Norwich City will vie to replace them in a match dubbed the richest in all of sport. With the television money ever increasing in England’s top division, the stakes have never been higher to earn a slice of soccer’s most lucrative pie. On Monday at Wembley, the victor will be guaranteed an estimated $170 million.
Both teams have recent experience in competing with the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal on a weekly basis and are desperate to return to the top. Indeed, Norwich are attempting to bounce back at the first time of asking having been relegated on the final day of the Premier League season a year ago. The club has taken decisive steps to get there after the man in charge when they took the drop, Neil Adams, resigned following an FA Cup defeat in January. Within days the club turned to unheralded 33-year-old Hamilton player-manager, Alex Neil, and it’s fair to say that a large proportion of supporters in Norwich were a mixture of underwhelmed and bewildered.
But the appointment has so far paid handsome dividends. A strong run of form saw Norwich finish third in the Championship standings, only missing out on automatic promotion by three points. And in the Play-Off semifinals they overcame local rivals Ipswich Town 4-2 on aggregate after a 3-1 win at Carrow Road in last Saturday’s second leg.
And Norwich have a man in charge with recent successful experience of masterminding a promotion through the Play-Offs. A year ago Neil’s Hamilton side reached the Scottish Premiership via the same route.
“Although the stakes are different, in terms of financially and things like that, ultimately the reward's the same -- getting promoted into the highest division in that country,” he said, reports Sky Sports. “It means a huge amount, as it did last year, and it's something I'm really looking forward to.”
However, he does not feel that what’s at stake for promotion will place an undue burden on a squad that has been led this season by the goals of Cameron Jerome and Bradley Johnson.
“They're not getting £120m, so I don't think it has a real impact on them,” he added. “I think the prestige of playing in the Premier League and being promoted is what they'll be concerned about. And making sure they're playing against some of the top players in the world next year.”
To get there Norwich will have to get past a Middlesbrough side looking to return the club to the top flight after a six-year absence. The north east outfit previously spent 11 straight seasons in the Premier League and even reached the final of the UEFA cup (now Europa League) in 2006 under future England coach Steve McClaren. But financial problems hit hard before they rebuilt under current coach Aitor Karanka. The former defender was a three-time Champions League winner at Real Madrid and was Jose Mourinho’s assistant coach at the Bernabeu for three years.
And Middlesbrough’s success this season has been built upon Mourinho-like defensive resistance. While finishing fourth in the table, Middlesbrough conceded just 37 goals in their 46 matches, by far the best record in the Championship. After cruising through their semifinal, winning 5-1 on aggregate against Brentford, they have particular reason for confidence going up against Norwich, having beaten them 4-0 and 1-0 in their league meetings this season. Karanka insists, though, it would be wrong to suggest his side are favorites at Wembley.
“I don’t think we’re favorites,” he said, reports Middlesbrough’s official website. “I don’t think the two games in the league were a good reflection. At the beginning of the season, they weren’t in a good way and in the game when we played there [at Norwich] they had chances and we were practically defending for 60 minutes.
“So I don’t think we’re favorites, especially if you look at their squad. They were playing the last three seasons in the Premier League and we were playing to save ourselves [in the Championship], so we’re not favorites. But we are going to go there [Wembley] to fight against a very good team.”
Karanka will be hoping that the club’s leading scorer this season, on-loan Chelsea striker Patrick Bamford, recovers from an ankle injury that forced him to miss the second leg of their semifinal. Norwich will have forward Lewis Grabban back from suspension.
Kickoff time: 10 a.m. EDT
TV channel: beIN Sports
Live stream: beIN Sports Connect