England's biggest football sweepstakes disguised as a four-team playoff kicks off Thursday as West Ham United faces Cardiff City in their Championship Playoff semifinal first leg match. The Hammers are the clear favorites, but the playoffs have not been friendly to the favorite in the past couple years.
West Ham have only lost once in their last 18 matches, but that defeat at home to champions Reading along with five straight draws in March doomed them to spot in the playoffs, instead of automatic promotion. West Ham are led by the attacking trio of Carlton Cole, Kevin Nolan, Ricardo Vaz Te that have combined for 35 goals this season. Goalkeeper Robert Green will need to be strong as well if the Hammers want to make a quick return to the Premier League and make no mistake, the pressure is one for them to do just that.
West Ham spent a large amount of money assembling a side designed to earn promotion this season. Anything other than that goal would be catastrophic for the club. All will likely be forgotten if they go up, but if not, there could be troubled times ahead for the Hammers.
In West Ham's way is Cardiff City, a team that has tasted disappointment the last two years while watching Welsh rivals Swansea not only get promoted last season, but securing another year in the top flight. The pressure is on the Bluebirds to finally break through and they've been in a great form of late, losing only once in their last 13 matches.
Cardiff won 1-0 at Upton Park on the opening day of the season, but West Ham got revenge with a 2-0 at Cardiff in early March. The Hammers have the advantage of playing the second leg at home, so they'll be looking for a solid result in the first leg to set themselves up to finish off the Bluebirds at home.
Thursday, May 3
Cardiff City v West Ham United - 18:45GMT/14:45ET
TV: Fox Soccer Plus (US), Sky Sports 1 (UK)
Thanks to Richard Oram for his help co-writing our Championship Playoff previews.