Championship Playoff Final preview: Fulham vs. Aston Villa

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Imagine playing in a single game where your performance over 90 minutes means the difference between over $300 million for your club or at least another year in the lower leagues.

That’s what is estimated to be on the line as Fulham and Aston Villa meet at Wembley on Saturday in the Championship playoff final at 12 p.m. ET hoping to earn the final spot in next year’s Premier League campaign.

Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce will be searching for an unprecedented fifth Championship promotion after previously guiding Birmingham City and Hull City to the top flight on multiple occasions. He is 2-0 in the playoff final, having won it previously once with each former club, taking Birmingham City to the Premier League in 2002 after defeating Norwich City in a penalty shootout, and earning the victory with Hull City in 2016 via a 1-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday. Players Sam Johnstone and Robert Snodgrass have both won playoff finals before as well.

Fulham, meanwhile, has experience of its own on the touchline, as boss Slavisa Jokanovic has taken Watford to the top flight previously, finishing second in the Championship in 2015, but he has never experienced a playoff final before.

The Whites appear to be in the better form, having nearly ended the season in historic form with 24 straight unbeaten, but lost on the final day of the campaign, missing out on automatic promotion by just two points. They play a possession-based style under Jokanovic, and while it’s taken a while for the team to grasp the tactics, they look as deadly as ever. However, the last few games have exposed the team yet again, with the loss to lowly Birmingham on the final day before a 1-0 loss to Derby County in the first leg of their playoff semifinal, a scoreline which they turned around in the second leg at home.

The Fulham midfield duo of Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen has a claim to be the best pairing in the Championship over the past two seasons, and they anchor Jokanovic’s setup behind playmaker Tom Cairney. The club brought embattled Newcastle striker Aleksandr Mitrovic to London in January, and he’s brought a cutting edge to an attack that was just missing a target man up front. Young winger Ryan Sessegnon, who just turned 18 years old on Friday, has been the club’s most heralded player, and could move to a top Premier League side this summer, especially if the Whites fall at Wembley this weekend. Finally, USMNT defender Tim Ream has led the defensive improvement of a club that conceded 83 goals three seasons ago to halve that this campaign.

They’ll take that attacking prowess up against one of the league’s most pragmatic opponents, as Villa finished the regular season with the third-fewest goals allowed and shut out Middlesbrough across both legs in the semifinals. They feature former Chelsea defender John Terry anchoring the back line, and he partners with experienced 29-year-old James Chester who has played under Bruce before at Hull. Terry himself has won five separate trophies at Wembley Stadium, experience he will surely share with the squad.

Villa’s most dangerous player this season has been Albert Adomah whose blistering pace down the right has been something for opponents to deal with. However, he’s hit a cold streak, without a goal since scoring in a 4-1 win over champions Wolves back on March 10th.

Villa is looking to go back to the Premier League after relegation two years ago, while Fulham has spent four years in the second tier after being sent down back in 2014.