There Must Be a Winner, But Who Wants It Most? The Championship Playoff Final Preview
The end of the EFL Championship Play-Offs and the finalists have been decided. Leeds United, West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa and Derby County all competed for that final place in next season’s Premier League, with Derby and Villa victorious in the semi-final. Promotion for one of these clubs means a huge revenue boost, stemming from prize monies and commercial media rights, not to mention the chance to test themselves against the best teams in England.
But which of these four teams was the overall favourite? Only one of these teams has won a Championship playoff before and it didn’t exactly go well for them in the top flight when they did. And with the 3rd and 4th placed sides already out, who will prevail in the much-anticipated final?
Leeds United, 3rd. Defeated in the Semis
Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds side were in the running for automatic promotion for much of the regular season. However, a drop in form after Christmas, partially as a result of injuries, helped Sheffield United overhaul them and snatch second spot. They finished the season with the worst form of the playoff sides, taking just four points from their final five league games, which ultimately seemed to cost them versus in-form Derby.
Their playoff record now makes grim reading. They lost the first ever playoff final to Charlton in 1987 over three legs, and lost again to Watford in the 2006 final, before capitulating at Elland Road and watching Frank Lampard's Derby triumph.
‘El Loco’ Bielsa has probably gotten the most out of a small squad of players in his attempt to get Leeds back to the big time. Bielsa had dismissed his side’s poor form going into the crucial playoff, saying his team’s ‘character’ and ‘ambition’ would be more important in deciding their fate, though ultimately it was their lack of discipline that let them down.
West Bromwich Albion, 4th. Defeated in the Semis
The top scorers of the four, West Brom headed into the playoffs in the unusual position of not having a manager. Caretaker Jimmy Shan was hoping to inspire his up-and-down team to greatness with the help of top-class forwards Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez.
But their playoff record was arguably worse than Leeds’. They lost to Derby in the 2007 final and went out in the 2001 semi-final too, before succumbing in controversial circumstances to Aston Villa this time around.
West Brom were always unfancied without a permanent head coach. Many bookies wrote them off in favour of Leeds and Aston Villa. But they showed their guts in the Villa semi-final, taking the tie to penalties despite going down to ten men in both games.
Aston Villa, 5th. Finalists
Many bookies favourites from the outset were Dean Smith’s Villa, who towards the end of the season went on a ten-game winning run. Smith’s appointment has seen Villa playing a more stylish and cunning brand of football; a different animal altogether to the Villa of Steve Bruce. Their momentum was halted by Leeds and Norwich going into the playoffs, but Villa still had too much for West Midlands rivals West Brom.
There is a hangover to contend with though, after last year’s playoff final defeat to Fulham, which will no doubt still be fresh in the memory. Can Villa learn from last year's failure, or will they let it get to them in this high-pressure fixture?
Derby County, 6th. Finalists
Achieving a playoff place on the last day has led to success. Just ask Huddersfield or Blackpool fans. But Frank Lampard’s Derby were not fancied to get past a Leeds side who had beaten them twice this season, especially trailing after the first leg.
Derby, though, were never beaten. In decent form and with a point to prove, they capitalised on Leeds' mistakes and overturned the deficit on their opponent's home ground, to set up a tantalising final with Aston Villa.
They may have beaten West Brom to achieve promotion in the 2007 final, but they have also lost more playoff games than their rivals, including three defeats in the last five seasons. Can Derby overcome their previous shortcomings to triumph in 2019?
Lampard's side were underdogs and priced at just 6/4 to win their home leg against Leeds. Fans of the clubs and Championship betting could back Derby to go up at 9/2, while Leeds were much preferred at 15/8. With favoured teams falling, it really is all to play for now and anyone's guess who the favourites to seize glory truly are. The futures of these two clubs could depend on the outcome, with FFP punishments potentially awaiting the loser.
The playoffs always throw up surprises and intrigue, but considering the records of those involved this year, coupled with the failure of Leeds and West Bromwich Albion to progress, it is now anyone’s for the taking.