Aston Villa travel to Wembley to face Fulham in the Championship playoff final on Saturday, and Steve Bruce’s men go in as underdogs given the impressive form of the Cottagers in the second half of the season.
Villa booked their place in the final after beating Middlesbrough 1-0 on aggregate in the semis. Fulham won 2-1 over the two legs against Derby County.
There could be £160m riding on the outcome of Saturday’s clash at Wembley, but can Villa get their hands on it?
Freescoring Fulham have been near-invincible in 2018
Slavisa Jokanovic’s Fulham side finished third in the Championship with 88 points from 46 games. Only Wolverhampton Wanderers scored more goals and lost fewer games than the Londoners this season, and Fulham ended up finishing just two points off the automatic promotion spots.
Their form in 2018 was outstanding, losing just one league game this year right at the end of the season when their fate was already sealed. At the turn of the year, Fulham were 12th in the table, seven points adrift of a playoff place, but picked up 16 wins and four draws from the 21 games that followed to finish on the cusp of the top-two.
If the season started on January 1, 2018, Fulham would be top of the table with 52 points from 21 games, nine points clear of second-placed Cardiff City and 11 ahead of Wolves. The Cottagers hit a couple of hurdles this month, losing their final league game of the season and the first leg of their playoff semi-final clash, but they responded well in the reverse fixture and deserve to be in the final.
Villa aren’t to be underestimated, however.
Villa’s mean defence can shut out Fulham
Steve Bruce’s Aston Villa side finished fourth in the table with 83 points, boasting the third-best defensive record in the division. Their form in the last six games cost them a top-two place as they dropped eight points in the run-in. Nevertheless, they have a manager who has more experience of the Championship playoffs than most and boasts an outstanding promotion record.
Bruce has earned promotion to the Premier League four times in his managerial career – Birmingham City (2002 and 2006/17), Hull City (2012/13 and 2016) – two of which came from winning the playoffs. He’s under a lot of pressure to deliver given the resources Villa had over the majority of their opponents this season and will be grateful for the experienced heads in the squad as they’ll be able to manage the final.
Robert Snodgrass, Mile Jedinak, John Terry, Alan Hutton, Ahmed Elmohamady and Glenn Whelan have a lot of Premier League experience between them and will lead by example on the big occasion, on and off the pitch. Villa’s greatest strength in their defence, while Fulham’s is their attack.
Something has to give on Saturday, but nerves may settle the final.
Fulham are favourites, but Aston Villa had more pressure to deliver promotion this season after failing in 2016/17. The Midlands outfit have a manager who has done it four times in his career and knows how to approach a playoff final, but Fulham have beaten Villa in their last four meetings in London.
It could be too close to call as a result.
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