- Fulham, Derby County, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough will compete for the final spot in the Premier League.
- Fulham, who just missed out on automatic promotion, are favorites to win the tournament but must deal with Derby County in the semifinal.
- Meanwhile, there’s not much separating Aston Villa and Middlesbrough, and that match could come down to which experienced manager gets his strategy right.
After an exhausting final day in the Championship last Sunday, there is just one remaining formality to be resolved — which side will join Wolves and Cardiff in the Premier League next season?
We won’t know until one of soccer’s most exciting competitions — the Championship Playoffs — are completed. The format for the tournament pits the third-place team against the sixth-place team, and the winner of that home-and-home match takes on the winner of the fixture between the fourth- and fifth-place finishers.
At the time of writing, Fulham — who finished third — are the favorites to earn promotion through the playoffs at +175. Aston Villa (fourth) and Middlesbrough (fifth) are each listed at +300, while Derby County, who limped into the playoffs, have the longest odds at +500.
Derby vs. Fulham — Friday, 2:45 p.m. ET
First-leg odds: Fulham (+151), Derby (+203), Draw (+238)
There’s no escaping that these sides will approach the game in opposing moods, with the hosts grateful to have secured this opportunity while Fulham will be ruing a huge one that was missed last time out. The visitors would have leapfrogged Cardiff into automatic promotion with a win at Birmingham, but instead the Blues ended Fulham’s remarkable 23-match unbeaten streak.
Despite that defeat, however, it should be said that the Londoners are still in the best form of any outfit in these playoffs, but the same was true last season. Fulham dropped just two points from the last 18 available in 2016-17 but crashed out at this stage to Reading in a result that was considered something of an upset at the time. Their manager has insisted that his men have learned from that experience, but there’s no denying that the visitors this Friday will have to set aside the disappointment of the missed opportunity against Birmingham.
Derby are in a very different position. While they looked like the side most likely to clinch second at the start of the year, their form nose-dived some months ago and threatened to jeopardize any hopes of a top-six finish in the process. Having narrowly avoided that fate, the Rams may be the underdogs but as such have nothing to lose.
Having been shut out in all but three of 23 home matches during the season, the first of which came against eventual champions Wolves in their opener at Pride Park, Gary Rowett’s side will be confident of exploiting any doubt that may have crept into the minds of their visitors. That said, Fulham remain a difficult side to stop, particularly since the arrival of Aleksandar Mitrovic, and while I think there will be goals at both ends despite the inevitable atmosphere, the odds don’t really appeal to me in that particular market.
The bet I find most appealing is Mitrovic to score at any time in the first leg. If you shop around, you should be able to find +175 on the Serbian to score.
Middlesbrough vs. Aston Villa — Saturday, 12:15 p.m. ET
First-leg odds: Middlesbrough (+136), Aston Villa (+256), Draw (+212)
As opposed to the first semifinal, these two sides both knew they’d be in this situation. Aston Villa have been assured a top-six finish for some time now, and have known that fourth is the best they could do for a matter of weeks, having fallen off the pace of Cardiff and Fulham. Indeed, while just one place separated these two sides in the table, the gap between the two in terms of points was seven despite Villa picking up just one point from their last two matches.
That may point toward a dip in form, but while momentum is important when approaching the playoffs, the away side have been able to take their foot off the gas and rotate what is a very healthy squad in more ways than one. There’s competition for places all over the pitch for Steve Bruce to consider, with the Villa manager making nine changes to his lineup last weekend to keep key players fresh.
Opposing manager Tony Pulis took a different approach with his side, fielding a strong starting XI against Ipswich, only to need a 96th-minute equalizer from Patrick Bamford to regain the fifth spot. Indeed, up until that moment, an unlikely swing had occurred in which Derby had overtaken Boro, which would have forced both managers to rethink their plans having assumed that this fixture would be something of a given prior to kickoff last Sunday.
Preparations would have been underway to try to limit the influence of the decisive opposition players, and in recent weeks and months, it’s clear whom each side have relied upon.
In fact, it’s a former Villa player in Adama Traore who comes into this game as the biggest threat to the visitors’ stubborn resolve, with the winger’s pace and power proving all but unstoppable in the second half of the season.
Meanwhile, the Spaniard’s former teammate, Jack Grealish, has been pulling the strings for the away side, and combating his creativity will be the objective of the hosts’ midfield.
However, while both have enviable attacking options, this should be a chess match between two experienced managers — both of whom have won promotion to the Premier League from this division. Bruce has done so as many as four times — and via the playoffs on three of those occasions — while Pulis is renowned for his direct tactics, with an onus on defensive organization.
Their know-how led to the fact that only the top two in the league conceded fewer goals in the regular season, and neither side will want to give too much way in this first leg. As such, the price on under 2.5 goals is considerably lower than in the other semifinal, but the odds on Aston Villa to score exactly one goal (+187) appeal to me; that happened in this fixture back in December and in four of Aston Villa’s last six matches in total.
Top Photo: Aston Villa’s Robert Snodgrass. Courtesy of Aston Villa.