By Neil Leverett and Isaac Farnworth
- Aston Villa and Derby County meet in the Championsip Playoff final at Wembley on Monday afternoon
- Former Premier League regulars vie for return to top flight
- Winning side set to net approximately £170m as prize
WEMBLEY STADIUM, LONDON – As Aston Villa and Derby County vie for Championship Playoff final glory at Wembley, who will book their Premier League berth next season?
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High Stakes at Wembley
There are few days as eagerly anticipated in the English footballing calendar as the Championship Play-Off Final. Simplistically speaking, the most valuable match in world football. It’s a gateway, a rite of passage to the promised land of club football; The Premier League. Consequently, for Derby County and Aston Villa who do battle on Monday in the £170 million match at Wembley, winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.
Victory in the final domestic showpiece of the season has been the platform for many a team, as West Ham and Crystal Palace will attest from their respective wins in 2012 and 2013 and still remain top flight without successive drop-back downs. Even Watford and Burnley – now established Premier League sides – won initial promotion via the play-offs in 2006 and ’09 to set up their future successes, having themselves yoyo-ed between divisions.
The price of victory cannot be underestimated – aside from the multi-billion pound kitty on offer. Derby’s particular hiatus from the top flight is now over a decade since their last berth in the top flight in 2006, and an immediate return nine months later. Winning on Monday will not just a chance for silverware but a chance to for a club to again showcase their wares on the richest and most globally-watched stage in football.
Villa form team
Few would have predicted Derby reaching this far despite looking promising for much of the long 46-game campaign in England’s second tier. With Frank Lampard having been at the wheel for almost 12 months now, the Rams got off to the most perfect of starts, edging past 2017 play-off finalists Reading thanks to Tom Lawrence’s last-minute winner. However, Leeds United – the side Lampard’s men defeated to secure a spot at Wembley – promptly snapped them back into the reality and unpredictability of the Championship, dishing out a 4-1 drubbing.
But as has been the case in 2018-19, Lampard’s men continued to bounce back from their defeats and notched some impressive results, notably knocking out Premier League giants Manchester United on penalties at Old Trafford in the Carabao Cup, Lampard’s biggest victory thus far in his young managerial career.
Aston Villa, on the other hand, have been tipped as red-hot favourites to make a swift return to the top flight since their relegation in 2016 for the preceding two seasons. The club, synonymous with the upper echelons of English football, are now 90 minutes away from mixing it with the Premier League big boys once again. Dean Smith has been a revelation at Villa Park since his controversial exodus from Brentford who were flying high at the time.
Whilst Derby essentially snuck into the end of season play-offs, the Villans were close to an automatic berth to the top flight. After winning ten of their 11 league games during the run-in, Smith led his side from the relative mediocrity of mid-table to finishing comfortably in the top six. Moreover perhaps, it should be noted that in the two games between these two sides, Villa have scored seven times in two victories home and away – without conceding. Conor Hourihane scored in both games.
Rich Blues’ finale narrative
The main narrative for the final will be the strong presence of Chelsea personnel – both former and present – not only on the pitch but in the dugout. For messrs Lampard and John Terry, this will be their first acid test of coaching credentials on the world stage since both men took their respective positions in management.
As former teammates who lined up in the same starting XI for 13 years, both men have won almost everything to be won in club football including the UEFA Champions League, together. For this first time on Monday however, the two friends will be pitted against one another – with Terry assistant coach for Villa.
It is not only here that the final will have a distinct Blues flavour to it. Mason Mount has blossomed on during his loan spell at Pride Park this term from west London and having been tipped as a star for the future not just for Chelsea for England, the 20-year-old’s eight goals and numerous assists with his midfield tag-team mate Harry Wilson – also on loan, from Liverpool – have cemented his burgeoning reputation.
Fikayo Tomori meanwhile has also come on leaps and bounds this campaign in the East Midlands, at the heart of Derby’s defence. Having barely missed a minute for the Rams this term, the Canadian-born, England U21 star will line up at Wembley and come face to face with some familiar faces.
Not least Tammy Abraham, whose goals catapulted Villa up the standings in the second half of the season and finished second as Championship top-scorer behind Norwich City’s Teemu Pukki with 26 goals – three behind the Finnish striker, but with a better goal per minute ratio.
Though a battle between Midlands club in north London, blue will be very much running as the hidden line at Wembley. When it comes to Terry and Lampard the respect between the two is immeasurable. However, will the victor be former midfielder or defender?
Isaac: Abraham’s potency has been essential to the side’s success this season, and having netted so often this season and also contributing three assists – if Abraham can remain on form for Monday – Derby’s backline will have their work cut out for them. Villa to return to top flight.
Prediction: Aston Villa 2-1 Derby County
Neil: In the past four finals in the Championship play-offs, there have been fewer than three goals during 90 minutes in what have been tight and tense affairs, however with the style of both teams on show here it is difficult to see a cagey affair at Wembley. Villa’s ability to flood the midfield and race forward at will has served them well in the final months of the season, and that I believe will be the difference here. I expect both teams to score, but for the Birmingham side to re-take their place back in English football’s elite.
Prediction: Aston Villa 2-1 Derby County
The Championship Playoff final takes sees Aston Villa face Derby County at Wembley Stadium for a place in the Premier League on Monday afternoon, kick-off 3pm BST.
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