The richest game in football will be played in May. The Championship play-off final, between Middlesbrough or Aston Villa and Derby County or Fulham, will be worth a minimum of £100 million (Dh497m) in television revenue, with further commercial benefits and the guarantee parachute payments of up to £90 million.
Yet there is a different sort of play-off first, played not at Wembley but in Swansea, where it is not about the prize, but the cost. It is about the nightmare scenario, not realising the dream. Swansea City against Southampton is not quite an eliminator – not with Sunday games to come, the possibility that both could send Huddersfield Town down and there is even a scenario when they draw on Tueday, lose at the weekend, are both leapfrogged by West Bromwich Albion and are relegated together – but the chances are that the beaten side will be playing Championship football next season.
Especially if that loser is Southampton. Their final-day fixture is against Manchester City whereas Swansea, level on points but with an inferior goal difference, have the insurance policy of a home match with relegated Stoke City.
“Everybody is writing off the Man City game but we are not and we won’t allow that,” insisted Southampton manager Mark Hughes. “We will try our utmost to get something out of that game but clearly when you are in this situation, you want to be able to damage the teams around you and Swansea are very much the team we have to damage.”
Swansea may have a propensity to damage themselves. They have not won in eight games. Having gone five points clear of the relegation zone, they might have peaked too soon. Manager Carlos Carvalhal in December arrived with an injection of positivity and a seemingly endless array of imaginative analogies. He rejuvenated the team with a switch to a back three. Yet that ploy has stopped working. Meanwhile, the goals have dried with up with just two in eight matches. Carvalhal has thus far ignored the growing calls to bring back 35-year-old Leon Britton, who has not played in the Premier League since October, to add direction to the midfield. Instead, Britton watched Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Bournemouth among the away fans.
“Just not good enough,” was the verdict on the club’s own Twitter feed on that display. Bournemouth captain Simon Francis accused Swansea of failing to perform because they were concentrating on the “cup final” of Southampton.
Yet Southampton scarcely arrive in ideal shape. After only winning once in 21 league games, they were seconds from recording back-to-back victories before Tom Davies scored Everton’s 96th-minute equaliser on Saturday. “We just mustn’t allow ourselves to be deflated by what’s occurred,” Hughes said. “We were damaged because we got so close to getting a significant result and a significant victory but we are not down in terms of confidence. We will get this out of our system and go again.”
Yet Southampton were not just deprived of another two points. They lost Mario Lemina, whose hamstring problem will be assessed and while Nathan Redmond’s scoring cameo makes him a logical replacement, Maya Yoshida was sent off. Jack Stephens may have to stand in for the suspended centre-back.
“We are playing well so we shouldn’t have any apprehension,” Hughes said. A manager whose reaction to most results has been to criticise referees believes clarity of thought is required. “You have got to deal with pressure, you have got to think clearly,” he elaborated. “When things are flying around, you have try and do the right things and you have to take your chances when you create them.”
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That should necessitate the selection of Charlie Austin, Southampton’s finest finisher, ahead of the selfless worker Shane Long, whose last 53 games for club and country have produced just two goals, in attack. It may require the individual inspiration produced by Dusan Tadic against Bournemouth in their last win.
Southampton, with their budget and players, should not be in this predicament. Swansea, cast adrift when Carvalhal took over, claim they are grateful to be in it. “When I arrived, if I said that we would have two games to finish to stay in the Premier League, nobody would have believed me because of the really bad position we were in,” said the Portuguese. “Everything is in our hands.”
Hughes echoed those sentiments. “It is still very much in our hands,” he said. But lose and it won’t be. It is a play-off of sorts with the potential punishment that the defeated team will be demoted.