Just like that, we’ve reached the playoffs again.
Once more the Championship becomes the most interesting element of English football. The world will hold its breath whilst waiting to see which team that wasn’t as good as Wolves or Cardiff will finish in the bottom half of the Premier League in May 2019.
Way back last July one of my pre-season predictions was that Fulham would win promotion and so I’m committed to backing the Cottagers this year. That’s usually been the kiss of death since I started writing for this blog, although it’s worth remembering that over the last decade the third and fifth placed teams have won seven of the last ten finals.
Having written that, it’s fair to say that nothing really jumps out from the dozen games between the four playoff contenders other than Aston Villa and Fulham were better than Derby and Middlesbrough. There were only two home wins in those matches – Villa and Fulham beat each other once – but with Boro having quickly adapted to Tony Pulis’ style of football, I’d agree with the bookies and say that Derby are the outsiders.
Derby v Fulham (this evening, 7:45pm, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)
In a scenario that will have been horribly familiar to Derby fans but not entirely out of the blue for the rest of us, having been second at the start of February The Rams almost dropped out of the playoffs last month. A team that can lose 4-1 at home to Sunderland yet still has a chance of winning promotion is an outstanding example of not only how daft the Championship can be but also indicates that Derby’s record of five consecutive top ten finishes without promotion will probably continue next season. It’s fair to say that if you neutralise Matej Vydra you can stop them and the defence has only kept one clean sheet at home since February.
Defeat at Birmingham last weekend was Fulham’s first reverse on the road since before Christmas, so was that just a sign of things to come or just acceptance that automatic promotion wasn’t going to happen? Worryingly for those of us backing them, the Cottagers have now gone ten away games without losing, which usually means another defeat is just around the corner. On the other hand, no team scored more goals away from home during the season than Fulham and – combined with Derby’s defensive frailties – could be a recipe for success.
Since 2000, Derby have beaten Fulham in half of their last six league meetings at Pride Park. Fulham won at Derby at the start of March with early goals from Mitrovic and Sessegnon before Huddlestone replied for the hosts.
Verdict: it would not surprise me at all if Fulham won this evening but then drew at Craven Cottage next week.
Middlesbrough v Aston Villa (5:15pm tomorrow, Sky Sports Football/Main Event)
Steve Gibson’s rather naive pre-season comment that Boro were going to ‘smash’ the Championship was looking unlikely as early as October, although as I pointed just after Christmas, Middlesbrough couldn’t be ruled out of the playoffs. Although they didn’t crack the top six until the start of March and have only lost twice since then, Tony Pulis’ appointment on Boxing Day clearly suits the players he inherited from Garry Monk: only Cardiff conceded fewer goals at home this season but their ‘defence first’ style at the Riverside has resulted in them scoring more goals in away matches this season. Middlesbrough have only lost two of their last ten home games – they almost earned a point against Fulham – and it’s only a couple of years since they were last in the playoffs.
Aston Villa have been in the playoff spots for most of the season but never really looked like automatic promotion material after losing at Fulham in February and consecutive defeats a few weeks later confirmed that analysis. One of those games (Bolton) appeared to trigger some sort of crisis of confidence as Villa have only won one of their four aways since then; it’s also highly significant that they lost all three games without scoring when they travelled to the teams that finished immediately above them this season.
Head to head: this looks particularly bad for Boro – their last home win against Villa was in December 2004 and they’ve met on Teeside in the league on five subsequent occasions. Boro have lost four of those games.
Verdict: on paper any game between Tony Pulis and Steve Bruce always looks as if it could finish 0-0. However, if Middlesbrough want to win promotion they’ll have to win tomorrow because the prospect of travelling to Villa Park next week without any sort of advantage will be a mountain to climb. I don’t think Boro will lose, but that may not be good enough to reach Wembley.
I’ll be back with an update at some point over the weekend although it’s more likely to be late on Sunday. At that point we’ll also definitely know if Swansea will be returning to the Championship along with Stoke and West Brom.
Result from Friday evening: Derby 1, Fulham 0. I really am the kiss of death 🙂
Proper update: the most overhyped match in the entire history of the galaxy will be between Aston Villa and Fulham. The preview will be posted sometime next week.