Jonny Howson

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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?

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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.”

Norwich City 1-0 Swansea City: Howson’s header lifts Canaries

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Jonny Howson gave Norwich City a massive three points, as Alex Neil‘s Canaries held off Swansea City for a 1-0 win at Carrow Road on Saturday.

Swansea was flying high to start the season, but is now on the verge of relegation scrap. The Swans are 14th, with 13 points, one slot and point ahead of the Canaries.

Norwich snapped a four-game losing skid with the win, while Swans now have just four points from their last six matches.

[ MORE: Watch full match replays ]

The visitors carried close to 75 percent possession in the first half hour, and Garry Monk‘s side was ready to end its disappointing run.

Yet it was the Canaries who would go ahead, as dangerous Robbie Brady sent in a corner to the back post. Dieumerci Mbokani sent it back into the fray, where Howson made it 1-0 with his noggin.

Swansea had the ball, but not the chances. Sixty-seven percent possession means little when you don’t put one of your eight shots on frame.

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In a way, the Canaries defied more than the flow of the game. They turned the tide on recent history, as shown in this Opta Tweet before the match:

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Arsenal 4-1 Norwich: Teamwork and individual class both on display for the Gunners (video)

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The home side had their first goal before 20 minutes were up. The opener truly showcased Arsenal’s talents, with Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud all exchanging tight one-touch passes as they wove through the Norwich defense. Wilshere slipped through the back line to latch on to the end of the final ball from Giroud, using his right foot to knock it into the back of the net.

Arsenal were kind enough not to score any more during the first half, and by the last five minutes, Norwich finally came to life. Robert Snodgrass and Leroy Fer both saw their shots saved. It seemed like there might be hope for the visitors, after all.

Sure enough, the Canaries continued to pressure Arsenal after the break. Wojciech Szczesny saved another from Snodgrass, followed immediately by an attempt from Martin Olsson. But the Gunners seemed to thrive on that pressure. A quick counter attack saw Giroud flying up the right. He sent the ball into the middle where Mesut Ozil, after a great run down the left, was waiting. And, wonder of wonders, Ozil headed the ball into the back of the net for his first Premier League goal.

But, with 20 minutes left to play, Arsenal let down their guard and the visitors took advantage. Per Mertesacker failed to adequately clear a cross and Kieran Gibbs didn’t do quite enough to chase it down. Jonny Howson controlled it wonderfully before sending a low drive into the back of the net.

Yet Howson’s goal turned out to be a mere consolation, with Arsenal hitting back with two more of their own. The second was another beauty, this time from Aaron Ramsey. Receiving the ball from Wilshere, Ramsey executed not one but two dummies, throwing off the Norwich defense and leaving him clear on Ruddy’s goal.

Ramsey turned provider for the fourth and final goal. Tomas Rosicky, on for Cazorla, sent the cross over for Ramsey, who pulled it back beautifully for Ozil to fire in his second goal. Another lovely display of team work, and another reason why the other title challengers should feel very worried indeed.

Arsenal: Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Wilshere, Arteta, Flamini (Ramsey 37), Cazorla (Rosicky 59), Ozil, Giroud (Bendtner 78)

Subs not used: Vermaelen, Monreal, Fabianski, Jenkinson

Goals: Wilshere 18′, Ozil 58′, Ramsey 83′, Ozil 88′

Norwich: Ruddy; Martin, Bassong, Turner, Olsson; Tettey (Hoolahan 79), Fer, Howson; Snodgrass, Pilkington (Redmond 70), Hooper

Subs not used: Bunn, Whittaker, Johnson, Becchio, R Bennett

Goals: Howson 70′