EFL Championship Playoff Preview
Background photo: Maciej Kubiak, CC BY 2.0
For the majority, the curtain has come down on the 2018/19 Football League season. However, the show goes on for a few select clubs. Leeds United, West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa and Derby County all seek the same ticket to the Premier League. Only one will win it. The question is who?
Football League playoffs consist of two semi-finals, both played over two legs with the higher placed team playing at home in the second leg. The two winners then face off at Wembley to secure promotion. Here's a peek at the playoff picture in the EFL Championship.
Leeds United (3rd-seed) v Derby County (6th)
The first semi-final pits Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United against Frank Lampard’s Derby County. This is their first meeting since the much-publicised “Spygate” allegations following the Whites 2-0 win over the Rams at Elland Road on Matchday 27. Kemar Roofe and Jack Harrison broke through the Derby defence for goals. Beforehand, a Leeds employee broke through a fence, or at least cut a hole in one, to film Lampard's practice.
He did so at the behest of the Mad Scientist. Marcelo Bielsa was last summer's surprise appointment at Leeds. Never one to overlook the tiniest detail, the 63-year-old Argentine shrugged off the controversy by staging a 90-minute press conference in which he outlined everything that goes into his match presentation, including opposition scouting reports.
At the campaign’s halfway point, Leeds topped the table, after suffering just three defeats. Whites fans anticipated direct promotion to the Premier League after a 15-year exile. Instead, the second half turned into Panic at the Disco. Ten defeats condemned Leeds to 3rd place and the playoff lottery. Bielsa must keep the club in top gear despite the disappointment of missing direct promotion on the season's final day. He'll need the best from captain Liam Cooper, Spanish winger Pablo Hernandez, Polish international midfielder Mateusz Klich and Harrison, on loan from Manchester City.
Derby County endured another strong campaign despite Gary Rowett's departure and Lampard's complete lack of managerial experience. The Chelsea legend wasn't fazed by the challenge. Early in the campaign, he eliminated former boss Jose Mourinho and Manchester United from the EFL Cup. His side didn't rise to Leeds' heights but remained in the playoff picture throughout the season.
Lampard used his connections well. The words Chelsea and loanees go hand-in-hand. Amongst Derby’s key players are central midfielder Mason Mount and defender Fikayo Tomori, both Chelsea loanees. Mount even scored against his parent club in the EFL Cup. Liverpool's Harry Wilson plundered 15 goals for the Rams. The 22-year-old is their main attacking threat.
Leeds finished nine points above Derby in strong part by doing the double over the Pride Park outfit. They enter the tie winless in four games, however, illustrating a common problem with Bielsa teams. Strong starts peter out in the latter stages. Derby come in undefeated in six. Given the respective side's momentum and considering just how difficult it is to beat the same side three times in a season, expect the Rams to butt the Whites right out of the playoffs.
West Bromwich Albion (4th-seed) v Aston Villa (5th)
The second play-off is a West Midlands derby between West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa. Both teams survived challenging campaigns including a managerial change to come within three games of the Premier League.
West Brom needed a moment to adapt to the Championship’s relentless nature after relegation. Once they found their footing, though, Albion quickly surged up the table to fourth before their momentum stalled. Gaffer Darren Moore was dismissed after a disappointing 1-1 draw to relegation-bound Ipswich Town on Matchday 36 at the Hawthorns. Midfielder Stefan Johansen’s goal cancelled out one from Ipswich’s Jon Nolan but it wasn't enough to save Moore's job.
Moore’s departure shocked many, some believing it to be racially motivated. Jimmy Shan took over in a caretaker capacity. After a much-publicised pursuit of Preston North End’s Alex Neil came to nothing, Shan was given the reigns until season’s end. His ten outings yielded six wins, one draw and three defeats, maintaining the club's hold on fourth place.
Jay Rodriguez and Dwight Gayle hit a combined 45 goals for the Baggies. Matt Phillips supplies the ammunition for the strike-force from out wide while Jake Livermore patrols the midfield.
Villa go into the playoffs in fine form although it didn't begin that way. After narrowly missing out on promotion after defeat to Fulham last term at Wembley, the club were touted to boss the division in 2018/19. The campaign began with Steve Bruce at the helm despite a brief off-season flirtation between the board and Thierry Henry. Three wins from the first dozen games saw Bruce replaced with Brentford manager Dean Smith, a lifelong Villa fan. Another Chelsea legend, John Terry, who played his final season at Villa Park in 2017/18, became Smith's number two.
Initially, the duo struggled. Following a 1-1 away draw at Stoke City on Matchday 36, where Albert Adomah, the club bottomed out at 11th in the standings. The tide turned at that point, however. Ten straight wins catapulted Villa into fifth and the playoffs.
Tammy Abraham powered the attack with 25 goals in 37 games. John McGinn and Conor Hourihane pull the strings in midfield. Birmingham's own Jack Grealish continues to shine. His campaign yielded six goals and six assists in 31 games.
They say form goes out the window in derbies. On paper, the squads appear level in terms of experience and quality. Smith gives Villa the edge over Shan and West Brom in those categories, though. Look for the region's biggest club to muscle their way to London-town.
Anticipating East and West Midlands sides to meet at Wembley despite the famous saying, the question becomes whether Frank Lampard can return to the Premier League in just his sophomore season in the technical area?
Both Derby and Villa ended the season strongly. They'll arrive at Wembley filled with confidence. I'm sticking with experience and quality, however. Put the kiddies' allowance on Aston Villa to be back in the top flight after a three-year absence.