Derby, Fulham, Villa, Middlesbrough: The state of play with 90 minutes to Wembley
Derby County and Aston Villa hold the advantage after the first legs of the Championship play-off semi-finals, but who will progress to the Wembley final?
They say it’s the most lucrative game in English football. The Championship Play-Off final is just a week and a half away and after the first games of the semi-finals, there is still everything to play for.
Derby County shocked most punters with a 1-0 win at home to favourites Fulham, giving fans hope of exorcising the ghosts of recent seasons and finally shaking the ‘bottlers’ tag.
Meanwhile, Aston Villa pulled out a solid away performance to stifle Middlesbrough and steal a 1-0 win thanks to a goal from a corner, much to the presumed chagrin of Tony Pulis.
It is a difficult group of teams to pull a winner from.
The runners and riders
Fulham were the runaway favourites but after narrowly missing out on automatic promotion, it could be a task for Slaviša Jokanović to lift his teams’ heads one last time for the final push.
In their last three games, they have lost to Derby, lost to relegation-fighting Birmingham, and barely scraped past an abject Sunderland side.
Aston Villa have the nous and the experience but they don’t have the star power of an Aleksandar Mitrović or a Ryan Sessegnon, though their defensive record is encouraging.
They have conceded just twice in their last six games, with only the top two bettering their record of 42 conceded in 47 league games this season.
In a throwback to the ‘we have a Hulk’ line of the first Avengers film, Middlesbrough have Adama Traoré. The sensational Spanish winger has recently been linked with a £30 million move to Chelsea but, as Villa proved on Saturday evening, without him they often have little else in terms of creativity.
Starving him of space and supply has been an effective tactic for Boro’s opponents this season, though the good form of Patrick Bamford and Britt Assombalonga up front offers some encouragement that they can fight their way back into the tie.
Derby only scraped into the top six on the last day ahead of Preston and Millwall and finished a full 13 points behind Fulham, but they came into the Play-Offs as gatecrashing party-poopers and seem to be relishing the role.
Theirs is a squad packed with quality Championship players and led by an excellent manager in Gary Rowett. They have a reputation for throwing it all away, but the Rams will be desperate to put that behind them.
One goal in each tie
Fulham would have known that going into the second leg a goal down wouldn’t be a disaster.
As the league’s second-top scorers, you would have found long odds on them failing to score in back-to-back games in the Play-Offs; the last time they drew blanks in consecutive games was in early November when they faced high-flying Wolves and Bristol City.
The message from Jokanović, then, will be not to panic. They know they have enough in their locker to overturn a slender deficit, though given the goal-scoring talent available to their opponents, they should not go gung-ho from the first whistle.
Matěj Vydra, David Nugent, Cameron Jerome, Andreas Weimann and Johnny Russell is an impressive attacking roster at Championship level, and it gives Derby hope of nicking a second or even third goal to kill off the tie.
It is finely balanced, and Fulham may well still be slight favourites to progress. Whether having come from behind to win at home or knocked out the favourites, the winner of this tie will take a huge psychological boost into the final on Saturday 26th May.
The more difficult task
For Middlesbrough, conversely, going into the second leg a goal down does seem a significant hurdle.
They have now played Villa three times in the league this season and are still yet to score – though they did win 2-0 at Villa Park in the League Cup back in September.
Tony Pulis may be tempted to ditch his preferred three-man midfield of Jonny Howson, Adam Clayton, and the impressive Muhamed Bešić in favour of a less conservative approach, with Boro falling flat in the first leg despite a rousing pre-match atmosphere.
The immensely popular former goalkeeping coach Leo Percovich took to the pitch ahead of kick-off to stoke up the atmosphere and thank fans for their support after a car accident recently claimed the lives of his two daughters.
Action Images/Adam Holt
It was a truly moving moment and one which has helped to underline the returning feeling of togetherness at the Riverside – hope that next season will be better after an oddly underwhelming campaign this time around.
Villa know how to shut Boro down and will be confident of doing it again on Tuesday night, with their wide players likely to be key.
Former Boro favourite Albert Adomah will fancy his chances against George Friend, whose powers at left-back seem to be fading, while Robert Snodgrass is targeting assist number 15 of the season.
Steve Bruce vs Tony Pulis is a compelling battle of two of the foremost members of the ‘been there, done that’ club of experienced British managers, and both would be confident of cajoling a promotion-winning performance out of their players should they make it to Wembley.
Fulham fell at the semi-final stage last year, while we also saw a thrilling penalty shoot-out win for Huddersfield in the semis before one of the most tedious matches of the season in the final.
The Terriers did the business last year and have had one of the club’s greatest seasons this time around as their reward. The stakes could hardly be higher.