LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 07: Kevin Nolan of West Ham United celebrates scoring the opening goal with team mate Jack Collison during the nPower Championship Playoff Semi Final 2nd Leg between West Ham United and Cardiff City at the Boleyn Ground on May 7, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
The Hammers are the favorites but that won't stop Blackpool from believing they can earn a second surprise promotion to the Premier League.
After 48 matches, 90 minutes (or a bit more should things go to extra time) are all that stands between a Premier League return for Blackpool or West Ham. More eyes may be focused on the Champions League final later in the day, but it's within reason to say that the repercussions of this match could be bigger, at least for the winner.
West Ham are the favorites on paper, having spent most of the season at or near the top of the Championship. A late-season slump dropped them out of an automatic promotion spot, but they left little doubt about their label after dismantling Cardiff City 5-0 in their two-leg semifinal. This team is set up to win promotion and anything less would be looked upon as a failure for the Hammers.
Manager Sam Allardyce understands the expectations and pressure, having guided Bolton to a promotion playoff victory in 2001. He knows what this match means to the club and its supporters and he'll have his team prepared. Having his captain Kevin Nolan on the pitch will help as well. Nolan was on the Bolton side which won promotion and their combined experience have likely been a bonus during training leading up the match.
The Hammers also recieved a boost on Thursday when Jack Collison, who scored a brace in the first match against Cardiff, was ruled fit for the final. Collison was expected to miss the match after dislocating his shoulder in the second leg.
West Ham will likely have a solid home field advantage as well at the national stadium. The club easily burned through it's allocation of 35,000 tickets and with Blackpool not expected to use their entire allowance, there could be upwards of 45,000 Hammers faithful at the stadium. It's gotten so crazy that Allardyce had tell his players to ignore ticket requests.
Of course, Ian Holloway and Blackpool are no strangers to these massive promotion tilts. The Seasiders dispatched Birmingham 3-2 in their semifinal to book their spot at Wembley and see no reason why they shouldn't defy the odds, just like they did in 2010. Holloway himself said this week that the plan was to "score one more than them". Comical, yes, but a simple approach is never a bad thing.
There's no question Blackpool are outgunned on paper by West Ham, but that's nothing new for Holloway's side. He'll look to the experienced Barry Ferguson and Kevin Phillips to help set the tone for a team that contains many of the same faces from their last triumph at Wembley. The Seasiders won't be overwhelmed by the moment, nor will they be short on belief. After all, they weren't supposed to win the last time they were in a Championship final either.
The pot got stirred even more this week after a photo leaked that showed what is believed to be the new West Ham kit for next season with Premier League badges already attached. While the club denied any involvement in the image (it could have been a Photoshop fake), Blackpool players were aware of it and discussed it with the media during the week.
Will something like that ultimately decide the match? Absolutely not, but should Blackpool pull the upset, you can bet it will be a sore point with supporters of the Hammers for years to come.