Fulham? Derby? Villa? Middlesbrough? Who will make it through the play-offs?
The Premier League promotion lottery is set to begin once more. Which of the four teams has the best chance of passing the test?
Action Images/Tony O’Brien
For fans of any team in the play-offs, most of May is spent biting nails.
For fans of a team who have narrowly missed out on the two automatic promotion spots, it’s an even nervier ride.
The fun begins on May 11th, with the first part of the home-and-away semi-finals getting underway, and will end on May 26th with one of the most lucrative games in world football, the Championship play-off final.
Fulham, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Derby County are the four sides in the mix this season. But which of them has the best chance of making it to the top-flight?
Recent history in Fulham’s favour
The lottery, the beauty, the pain of play-offs is that the third-placed team in the league table has, in theory, as much of a chance of winning them as the club who finish sixth.
It’s a system that can be deemed a little unfair, but a system that, overall, finds its way of giving a just reward.
In the 10 seasons since the 2006/07 campaign, the team which has finished third in the league table has gone on to win the final five times.
Action Images/Tony O’Brien
However, it hasn’t happened since 2015 when Norwich beat Middlesbrough in the final after finishing three points shy of the second automatic spot.
The Cottagers fell just short of going up without the need of the shoot-out, after pushing Cardiff City all the way to the final day of the season; a defeat at Birmingham City ended their customary post-Christmas charge up the table.
What does the form book say?
That defeat at Birmingham was most untimely for Fulham, considering it was their first loss in the league since the middle of December – a run of 23 matches.
Of all four sides, Fulham also hold the best goal difference and have scored the most goals.
Aston Villa have been a mainstay in the upper reaches of the table for much of the season. Defensively they are the strongest of the contenders, having conceded the fewest amount of goals throughout the regular campaign.
Steve Bruce’s side, though, have allowed their season to slip away having been so comfortable in their position; they have only won four of their last 10 matches, claiming only one point from the last six available.
Action Images/Adam Holt
Middlesbrough have had a much stronger second-half of the season than the first. The board removed Garry Monk as manager just before Christmas, replacing him with Tony Pulis.
It took a while for Pulis’ regime to get into a groove but Middlesbrough have been in consistent form since the middle of February. A place in the top-six was looking ominous beforehand but eight wins and only two defeats in the final 14 fixtures saw them take fifth place.
Derby County’s season has been a little more contrasting. The Rams amassed an impressive 10 wins in 13 games from October to before Christmas, but three wins in their next 15 prompted a nervous end to the season.
Gary Rowett’s men rallied at the end of the season though, claiming seven points out of the last nine.
The semi-finals head-to-head
In the current format, the semi-finals are dictated as per final league position.
Third place will play sixth, and fourth will play fifth. In this season’s edition, Fulham will play against Derby County, and Aston Villa will play Middlesbrough in a home-and-away, two-leg format.
The third- and fourth-placed teams will play away for the first fixtures.
Fulham will have the psychological advantage over Derby, having claimed four points from the two fixtures between the sides in the regular season.
The Cottagers took all three points away at the iPro Stadium after a 1-2 win back in March – a result Slaviša Jokanović will happily take a second time.
Action Images/Craig Brough
Derby held Fulham to a 1-1 draw at Craven Cottage at the beginning of the season.
Aston Villa and Middlesbrough haven’t played one another since December when the Midlands side nicked a 1-0 victory at the Riverside Stadium.
At the start of the term, under then-boss Garry Monk, Middlesbrough held Villa to a 0-0 draw at Villa Park.
If the form book and recent meetings are anything to go by, narrow victories for both Fulham and Aston Villa may well be on the cards.
Should the two meet in the final, then there’ll be nothing to split them based on this season’s meetings – three points and a home win each.
Who will take the trophy?
With Fulham’s recent form, it is hard to look past them as favourites to win the right to dine at the top table next term.
The loss to Birmingham, though, will be a knock to the aura of invincibility that the Cottager’s were carrying, and will be a boost to Derby County.
Derby’s own recent form will be a concern, however, and there’s no doubt which of the two sides will go into the semi-finals the more confident.
Aston Villa’s job against Middlesbrough is, on paper, a slightly more difficult task.
Action Images/Alan Walter
The two sides have had a similar run of form at the tail-end of the season, despite Villa finishing seven points above Middlesbrough in the final table.
Both sides can score goals although Villa have netted five more – and conceded three fewer – than Pulis’ side.
Should the league table offer any indication of which sides will make it through, then we could well be seeing a showdown between Fulham and Aston Villa at Wembley on May 26th.
What do you think? Which side is most likely to win the play-offs? Vote below…!