Hammers have the extra
They might have flattered to deceive for most of the season and they might have fallen short of most expectations but we think West Ham have something more than the rest of the Championship play-off field, and we're backing them secure promotion straight back to the Premier League at 9/5.
We backed the Hammers to win the title at 5/1 in our outright preview back in August but poor home form prevented them from ever taking the division by the scruff of the neck and, in the end, they topped the table for just five matches from mid-January before a sequence of six draws in seven matches slowed their progress, allowing Southampton and Reading to surge past.
However, for all those shortcomings, the fact remains that West Ham still have the spine of an established Premier League outfit and they look like the team most likely to slip into another gear over the course of the next 17 days. Besides which, somebody else has to find a knockout punch to shift them and only Charlton have lost fewer matches than Sam Allardcye's men in the entire Football League this term.
Back West Ham to win the play-offs at 9/5
On an emotional level, the Londoners probably don't deserve another chance but the case for looking elsewhere in search of a fancy price doesn't quite stack up.
An anti-Hammers stance presumably centres around the fact they finished third and their automatic promotion hopes went right down to the final day but it's a myth that third-place teams underperform in the play-offs. In four of the last six seasons, the highest-placed team has prevailed at this level, just as Allardyce went up with Bolton in 2001 when missing out on an automatic spot with 87 points, one more point than the Hammmers have now.
Indeed, Allardyce is a key driver behind this bet. Some might say the edge he gained in the early 2000s with his sports science innovations has all but disappeared in this day and age, bringing him back into the pack as just another manager, but his experience in preparing for games of this magnitude will surely stand him in good stead.
And Big Sam has played a blinder so far. He never flinched once amid the pressure of the automatic race and is still approaching business with the calm demeanour of a man who knows he still has probability on his side. Therefore, the early 9/5 quotes are marginally bigger than we expected and careful analysis suggests a modest stake on the favourites is the sensible play.
Back West Ham to win the play-offs at 9/5
By normal rationale, you can make a case for any of the other three but nothing watertight. They all come into the play-offs with some form of momentum - Birmingham are unbeaten in nine, Blackpool are unbeaten in seven and Cardiff are unbeaten in ten - but that kind of defeats the object of what momentum is all about. Which one of those sequences prompts unshakeable belief?
As second favourites at shorter than 3/1, Birmingham are perhaps the easiest to write off. They've played 60 competitive matches - nine more than semi-final opponents Blackpool - which would't be so bad if everybody didn't keep going on about it, and now they have to contend with badly-timed speculation linking Chris Hughton to the vacant West Brom post.
Blackpool have the best dynamic. They have been playing with great intensity in recent weeks and have the perfect attitude when so much is at stake. The Seasiders seem like the team most likely to do themselves justice in terms of performing under pressure but we wouldn't give them much hope in the final, be it against a well-organised West Ham team that smashed them 8-1 on aggregate in the regular season or a Cardiff team looking to exorcise the ghosts of their recent Wembley heartbreak.
Indeed, that was the angle our hearts wanted to take because that recent heartbreak can serve a powerful motivational tool - teams returning to Wembley have a great record when going back - but then the head over-ruled simply because we don't think they will survive 180 minutes against a team who finished 11 points ahead of them.
So West Ham it is then.
For more on the play-offs, read our betting preview of Cardiff v West Ham
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