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Bruce after Villa qualifies for promotion playoff final: “We just shaded it”

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Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce is your guy if you want to get out of the Championship, and is one win away from bringing a fifth side into the Premier League.

[ RECAP: Villa 0-0 (1-0 agg.) Boro ]

Villa advanced to the playoff final with a 1-0 aggregate win over Middlesbrough, the second leg a 0-0 at Villa Park on Tuesday.

And if Villa knocks off Fulham on May 26, Bruce will have led two Hull City, Birmingham City, and Aston Villa into the top flight via the playoff, once more each with Hull and Birmingham via the league route.

“We just shaded it over the two games, with a goal from a set-piece,” Bruce said. “But in the second half tonight there was only one team that was going to win it.

“It was agony towards the end, if I’m being honest. It means so much. Thankfully it looks as if we’ve got the club turned around a little bit. We’ve given ourselves a good chance. We’re up against an outstanding team in Fulham.”

Bruce has endured a harrowing few months off the pitch, losing his father and mother in an 88-day span. With respect to Fulham (and Birmingham) fans, it’s easy to make Villa the emotional favorite of the playoff final.

Aston Villa holds off Boro, moves onto playoff final

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Playoff finals are old hat for Steve Bruce, but a new event for Aston Villa.

The Birmingham club beat Middlesbrough 1-0 over two legs, the second a 0-0 draw at Villa Park on Tuesday, to advance to meet Fulham in the Championship Playoff final at Wembley Stadium on May 26.

Stewart Downing‘s 89th minute free kick off the cross bar was Boro’s only sniff of the goal.

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Villa is in just its third season outside of the English top flight since 1975, though Bruce managed Hull City and Birmingham City to the Premier League through the playoffs.

Boro scored plenty under Tony Pulis in the season, but it was a case of traditional Pulis stats in the playoffs. The notoriously stingy manager saw his side manage just two shots on target over two legs, with both coming in the home leg.

Lewis Grabban of Villa had the two best scoring chances of the match, but Darren Randolph made a pair of saves.

Villa won the first leg on a Jack Grealish to Mile Jedinak goal.

On Monday, Fulham flipped a first leg deficit to Derby County on its ear to clinch its space at Wembley.

Fulham overturn Derby deficit to reach promotion final

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Following a four-year run in the Championship, Fulham now find themselves 90 — or, perhaps 120 — minutes from a return to the Premier League after overturning a 1-0 first-leg deficit to Derby County in the two sides’ promotion playoffs semifinal on Monday.

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Cameron Jerome put the Rams into pole position by scoring the only goal in first leg at Pride Park, but Ryan Sessegnon and Denis Odoi each netted during the second half on Monday to send Slavisa Jokanovic’s side to Wembley Stadium where they’ll face either Aston Villa or Middlesbrough in the “world’s most lucrative game” in two weeks’ time. Villa lead Boro 1-0 after winning away at the Riverside Stadium on Saturday.

Sessegnon hammered a loose, bouncing ball past Scott Carson to bring the Cottagers back to level terms on aggregate, and whipped in the perfect corner-kick service for Odoi to rise above the crowd and head home the second.

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The May 26 final will be Fulham’s first trip to Wembley since 1975.

U.S. men’s national team defender Tim Ream, who’s likely to strongly considered for Fulham’s Player of the Season award, played all 90 minutes and turned in another of his typically strong defensive performances.

Aston Villa win away to Boro, take first step toward PL return

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Aston Villa took one giant step forward on Saturday, their 1-0 victory over Middlesbrough moving Steve Bruce‘s side miles closer to a return to the Premier League after two seasons in the Championship.

[ MORE: Derby top Fulham at home, take 1-0 lead into second leg ]

Saturday’s clash at the Riverside Stadium was only the first leg of the semifinals of the promotion playoffs, sure, but it was a colossal result for Villa who hold a 1-0 halftime lead ahead of Tuesday’s second leg back at Villa Park. Away goals are not used in the Championship’s promotion playoffs.

Mile Jedinak scored the game’s only goal (assisted by Jack Grealish), a header in the 15th minute, as Bruce works toward winning the fifth top-flight promotion of his 20-year managerial career.

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Bruce, who endured and persevered through the passing of his father in February followed by that of his mother earlier this month, felt his side handled the pressure of the playoffs tremendously well after they dropped five points from their final two games of the regular season.

“We’re pleased,” he said after the game. “We’ve given ourselves a little advantage, although we’re only winning 1-0 at halftime and strange things can happen. But we’ve handled the pressure of a big game here very well.”

Championship playoff preview: First legs see underdogs at home

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Who’s going to join Cardiff City and Wolves in the Premier League next season, and who will be left behind to meet Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion, and (probably) Swansea City?

[ MORE: Playoff primer ]

The next steps in that particularly journey are Friday.

Derby County (6) vs. Fulham (3) — 2:45 p.m. ET Friday

Fulham took four of six points from the Rams during the season, including a 2-1 win at Pride Park Stadium in March.

And the Cottagers had been in fine form until a season finale loss that cost them a chance at instant promotion to the Premier League. Third place teams have claimed just five of 15 playoff finals.

Derby defender Richard Keogh: “Our aim was minimum was a top-six finish, that’s cemented now and the play-offs is something we are all looking forward to. We know what the play-offs are like. It’s a pressure environment, but if you look though our squad the majority of us have been through a play-off campaign, so hopefully that will help us in the lead up to this.”

Fulham boss Slavisa Jokanovic: “It’s like in tennis; we lost one set, and we must be ready to keep going and cross the line. 180 minutes are ahead of us, and everything is probably going to be open after the game we’re going to play against Derby tomorrow. We must be ready for tomorrow’s challenge, and we must be ready for the game we’re going to play at Craven Cottage, too.”

Middlesbrough (5) vs. Aston Villa (4) — 12:15 p.m. ET Saturday

Thrice these teams have met since August, and the home side has been blanked each time. Boro knocked Villa out of the EFL Cup, but Villa took four of six points in the Championship. The last win came four days into the tenure of current Boro manager Tony Pulis.

Aston Villa boss Steve Bruce has a lot of people in his corner following the death of both his parents inside of a 90-day window. He says it has “rocked me to the bones” and is grateful for the distraction of the playoffs.

Bruce: “I think about the possibility of going to Wembley with Aston Villa and I know my mum will be there in spirit. She used to love a day out at Wembley, she really did. My dad wasn’t a huge fan of those trips, but she loved it. I just hope we have something to celebrate at the end of the month, because that is what they would have wanted.”

Middlesbrough’s Jonny Howson: “Looking at it, the playoffs have been different for me every single time. Form and recent match-ups in the league, it all goes out of the window. No-one can predict them. Yes, we’ve played Villa three times this season, and we know their players well – but it will be a completely different game now. We’ve got to get our focus right and start gearing up towards Saturday. It’s going to be a great atmosphere, we want to get off to the best start we can and get a good foothold in the tie.”