It’s playoff final weekend!
Wembley Stadium’s 80,000 seats will host six sets of rival fans over three days of nail-biting football, as their teams compete for the final places in the top three divisions in English football next season. Confused? Read on.
The action begins on Saturday in League Two when Tranmere and Newport County face off for a spot in League One. Whoever emerges victorious in that one will replace the winner of Charlton and Sunderland in the division. The former-Premier League regulars meet on Sunday as they bid for a return to the Championship.
Then, finally, we arrive at the Championship playoff final on Monday, Aston Villa vs. Derby.
Expect to hear the buzz-phrase ‘the richest game in football’ repeated liberally by media outlets across the country as the pair attempt to claim a place in the cash-rich Premier League.
In fairness, the winners are estimated to pick up nearly £200 million over the subsequent three seasons which is over twice as much as the finalists of the Champions League, so there is some merit to the claim.
The story of this year’s final is Aston Villa attempting to bounce back to the top flight at the third attempt, having competed in the previous 24 Premier League seasons.
The Villans finished in fifth place in the Championship despite looking as though they would fall short for much of the season. However, a run of ten straight wins in March and April, in which Villa scored 23 goals and conceded just five, was enough to sneak into the playoffs where they overcame their rivals West Brom.
Standing in their way will be Derby, who staged an unbelievable comeback against Leeds in the semi-finals to reach Wembley. Having lost 1-0 at Pride Park, the Rams knew that they would need to win at Elland Road to progress. However, after going 1-0 down in that one it looked an impossible task. However, an astonishing second half comeback eventually resulted in Derby winning the match 4-2, with both sides having a man sent off.
The final is being dubbed the Chelsea derby, due to the number of former and current Blues players who are involved. On one hand Frank Lampard, the Derby manager, will be ably assisted by Jody Morris. The pair come up against Lampard’s long-time teammate and fellow Chelsea legend John Terry who will sit the opposing dugout as Aston Villa’s assistant manager.
The Chelsea representation stretched to the pitch as well though. Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount (Derby) and Tammy Abraham (Aston Villa) are all Chelsea loanees and each have played a huge part in their respective sides’ success this season.
Villa have recent experience of the occasion, having lost to Fulham in last year’s final, though will hope to fare better than the Londoners should they gain promotion.
It will be Derby’s fourth playoff final in total, though they will take no comfort from having lost two of the previous three, the most recent being the loss to QPR in the 2014/15 season.
Even if Derby win though, they will have a long way to go to match the success of Crystal Palace in the playoffs, whose four triumphs makes them the most successful side in the country at the end of season competition.
Both sides will be missing players for the final. Villa will be without James Chester as well as long-term absentees Orjan Nyland, Thomas Carroll and Jordan Lyden. Axel Tuanzebe remains a doubt and will be a huge loss if unavailable.
Derby are missing Scott Malone through suspension after his dismissal in the semi-final. Andy King will also be missing whilst Martyn Waghorn and Craig Bryson will also have last-minute decisions made on them.
Having gone so close last season, I suspect that this will be Villa’s year. The momentum is theirs after they finished the season like a runaway train to sneak into the playoffs. In Tammy Abraham they have the second highest scorer in the division and the young Englishman will hope to light up the Premier League next season with or without Villa’s presence.
Frank Lampard has been linked heavily with the Chelsea job in recent days as speculation over Maurizio Sarri’s future rages on. That is bound to have an unsettling effect on the squad and I wouldn’t be surprised if it affects them.
There have been four occasions in which the playoff runners-up have reached the final again the following season. In three of those four, they have been victorious at the second attempt and the only exception, Leicester in 92/93 & 93/94, won the final the following year at the third attempt. I expect Villa to continue that trend by edging a close one.