Championship play-offs: Which team will secure Premier League promotion?
The Championship play-offs commence on Friday night. Fulham, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, and Derby County all have sights set on England’s top division. Only three games stand in their way.
In the semi-finals, Fulham take on Derby and Aston Villa face Middlesbrough. The winners of the two-legged ties will meet at Wembley on 26 May.
Wolverhampton Wanderers and Cardiff City claimed the Championship’s automatic promotion spots. Which side will also earn passage to the promised land?
Fulham suffered agony on the season’s final day. With Cardiff held 0-0 at home to Reading, a win would have clinched the all-important second position. The Cottagers failed to ride out the pressure, though, losing 3-1 to Birmingham City.
Yet, it’s been an excellent campaign for Fulham. Prior to defeat at St Andrew’s, their unbeaten run extended to 23 matches. Slavisa Jokanovic’s side were also the Championship’s second-highest goalscorers.
Aleksandar Mitrovic, on loan from Newcastle United, struck 12 goals in only 15 starts to help spring the Cottagers’ promotion push. The Serbian striker will be difficult to contain in the play-offs. As will Ryan Sessegnon, Tom Cairney, and full-back Ryan Fredericks, who all earned selection in the PFA Championship Team of the Year.
Sessegnon featured in every game this season. From left-back, the talented 17-year-old used his electric pace to full effect, scoring 15 times as well as providing 6 assists. Further forward, Cairney contributed to 10 goals. The Scottish midfielder’s creative instinct could prove vital for Fulham.
Having lost three consecutive games in April, Derby recovered to claim sixth position. The Rams’ 3-1 victory over Cardiff two weeks ago was crucial. Gary Rowett’s team then held their nerve, defeating Barnsley 4-1 on the last day to pip seventh-placed Preston North End by two points.
Derby’s Scott Carson, Richard Keogh, and Curtis Davies, complemented by midfielder Tom Huddlestone, provide valuable experience heading into the playoffs. The four players have amassed a combined 1,928 appearances during their careers.
The Rams rely on Matej Vydra to fire up top. The Czech frontman was voted the 2012/13 Championship Player of the Season while on loan at Watford. Scoring 21 goals in 40 matches this campaign, he is the competition’s leading marksman.
Having suffered play-off heartache in two of the last four seasons, will it be third time lucky for Derby?
After picking up just one victory in the first seven games, Aston Villa came back strong. A winning run stretching from December to mid-February built momentum. Steve Bruce’s side remained solid to finish fourth, seven points off the automatic promotion places.
Villa possess three potential match winners. Jack Grealish can produce magical moments to unlock a defence, although he can be inconsistent at times. On the right wing, Albert Adomah is the club’s top scorer with 14 strikes. Lewis Grabban is also a prolific finisher. The Jamaican striker has been sensational since joining on loan from Bournemouth in January, scoring 7 times in 13 games.
In John Terry, the Villans have an inspirational leader. The former England international is fully focused on returning to the Premier League, a competition he triumphed in five times as a Chelsea player. At 37, this is probably his last chance.
Villa were expected to at least secure a top-six position this season. With that achieved, their players must now take a bigger leap by delivering Premier League football.
Considered title favourites before a ball was kicked, Middlesbrough had to settle for fifth spot. Four victories in the last five games ensured Tony Pulis’ team finished three points inside the play-off places.
Boro’s squad is capable of bouncing back to the top flight at the first attempt.
Ben Gibson will keep Middlesbrough’s defence tight. The centre-back, who earned England selection last March, is keen to prove he belongs among the elite. Another key player, Stewart Downing is a Boro legend. Having represented his home-born club for 11 years, during two separate spells, he’s made 362 appearances in all competitions. At 33, the winger can still make a difference.
Adama Traore offers Middlesbrough the element of surprise. The Barcelona graduate’s ability to ghost past defenders meant he was involved in 15 league goals this season. The club’s top scorer, Britt Assombalonga, can be deadly, too. Boro fans hope the striker’s day arrives when it matters most.
It’s not only players who have important roles, managers are vital as well. Especially in play-off encounters. Fortunately for Fulham, Derby, Aston Villa, and Middlesbrough, they all have quality operators in the dugout.
As a managerial novice, Jokanovic tasted success at Partizan Belgrade, winning back-to-back domestic doubles. The Serb decided to test his arm on English shores five years later. After guiding Watford to Championship runners-up, he left before experiencing the Premier League.
Rowett is a highly-rated young manager, with over 300 games under his belt. The 44-year-old’s journey began at Burton Albion before switching to Birmingham City. His contract at St Andrew’s was terminated, somewhat unfairly, in December 2016.
With a managerial career spanning 20 years, Bruce has been around the block at nine clubs. The Englishman knows what it takes to escape England’s second-tier, having masterminded promotion on four occasions at Birmingham and Hull City. Twice via the play-offs.
Pulis inspired Stoke’s Premier League journey. Against all odds, the Welshman made the Potters competitive in the top division for five seasons. Despite often accused of dreary football, his methods produce results. Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion both struggled after he left.
Fulham’s form will be enough to overcome Derby. The Cottagers have missed their best shot to go up, though. The winners of the other semi-final will triumph at Wembley.
Aston Villa against Middlesbrough is evenly matched. Expect two closely fought, scrappy contests.
Boro will just edge it. Pulis’ Premier League story is set to reconvene in August.