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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.

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.”

Derby County tops Fulham 1-0 in first leg of playoff semifinal

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Fulham may be running out of steam at the worst possible time.

After a 24-match unbeaten run that lasted nearly half the Championship season, Fulham failed to secure automatic promotion with a final-day loss to Birmingham, and now the Whites find themselves in a hole midway through their playoff semifinal matchup against Derby County.

The Whites dominated 74% of the possession at Pride Park in the first leg of the playoff semifinal matchup, but former Stoke City and Crystal Palace striker Cameron Jerome hit against the run of play on 34 minutes, rising higher than Southampton loanee Matt Targett to head home the game’s only goal. Fulham built into the match in the second half, but could not find an equalizer as Kevin McDonald smashed the crossbar in their best chance with around 20 minutes to go.

Fulham has traditionally struggled against bunkered opponents, and the free-flowing attack was stifled by a quality defensive shape from the home side. Derby goalkeeper Scott Carson was also required to produce a fabulous save that kept out Tom Cairney in the 64th minute.

The match will see a quick turnaround as the two sides meet again at Craven Cottage, with Fulham needing a goal to force extra time and two to move on, while Derby could put one foot in Wembley with a single road goal.

Fulham, for their stunning form at times this season, has still never won a playoff match in club history, falling to Reading across two legs last season and now with a loss in the opening leg this time around. Whoever makes it through to Wembley for the playoff final will meet either Aston Villa or Middlesbrough, with those two sides set to meet for the first leg on Saturday at Riverside Stadium.

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.”

Hull City’s Diomande reunites with Bradley in LA (video)

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Adama Diomande is reuniting with the coach who helmed his most successful professional season.

“Adama is a quality goalscorer who brings the experience of playing at a high level in Europe,” said LAFC head coach Bob Bradley. “We believe he will have a strong impact in MLS.”

The Hull City man scored 25 goals in 26 matches for Stabaek when Bradley was the manager in 2015, earning a move to the English side. While at Hull, Diomande scored seven goals in 64 matches between the Premier League and Championship.

He joins fellow transfer deadline day acquisition Lee Nguyen in bolstering an LAFC attack with Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi. The signing comes on the same day that Costa Rican star Marco Urena was lost indefinitely with a facial injury.

Is this an all excuse to show Diomande’s amazing bicycle kick built for two goal with Abel Hernandez from Premier League Opening Day last season?

I’m not saying we’re silently nodding over here, but…