Alex Neil has challenged Norwich City to rise to the occasion when they meet fierce rivals Ipswich Town in a mouth-watering Championship play-off semi-final.
Norwich were looking good value to earn automatic promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt until a loss to fellow play-off side Middlesbrough and a draw at Rotherham United halted their push.
A 4-2 beating of Fulham ensured a third-placed finish and a tie with East-Anglian foes Ipswich, marking their first meeting outside of the regular season since the 1985 League Cup.
“We know exactly what it means to everyone, and it means a hell of a lot to myself and the players as well,” Neil, in charge at Carrow Road since January, told Norwich’s official website ahead of Saturday’s first leg at Portman Road.
“Ultimately, we’ve got to rise to the challenge and get ourselves past Ipswich to make the final.”
The play-offs provided Ipswich – who boast the Championship’s top scorer in Daryl Murphy – with a route to the Premier League in the 2000 final against Barnsley, and they crept in on goal difference ahead of Wolves despite losing to Blackburn Rovers on the final day of the regular season.
Manager Mick McCarthy has suffered semi-final defeats with former clubs Millwall, Sunderland and Wolves, but is not been deterred by those failures.
“The play-off system makes the league exciting. It keeps a good two thirds of the league fighting for something for the majority of the season,” he told the Eastern Daily Press.
In the other semi-final, Brentford are bidding for back-to-back promotions, but must contend with an abysmal play-off record in which they have failed to gain promotion in seven attempts.
Brentford lost to Middlesbrough twice this season, including a 4-0 thumping at the Riverside Stadium in September, and manager Mark Warburton – who will leave his post at the end of the season – is keen to atone for that loss.
“The away game was the worst 45 minutes of the season. We have some unfinished business there as a squad,” he said.
Much like Norwich, Middlesbrough – relegated from the Premier League in 2009 – were in the hunt for an automatic berth.
Manager Aitor Karanka is not reflecting on what could have been, though, and spoke of the importance of gaining a result at Griffin Park on Friday.
“We have had one week to prepare for the game in the best way, to try and beat Brentford and come back here [to the Riverside] with a result,” the Spaniard commented.
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