The Championship playoffs get going this weekend with Leeds United, West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa, and Derby County going at it with a spot in the Premier League on the line.
[ PREVIEW: Brighton v. Man City | Liverpool v. Wolves ]
Last year, Fulham finished third just two points behind a guaranteed promotion spot, but managed to earn a place in the top flight via the playoffs. The year before that, Huddersfield Town tasted playoff glory after finishing fifth in the Championship table to earn its first-ever trip to the Premier League.
Aston Villa v. West Bromwich Albion
Villa Park is begging for a return to the Premier League. After the storied club was stunningly relegated three seasons ago for the first time since 1987, it’s been a long, hard road to this point. They finished a disappointing 13th the first time around as hopes of going straight back up vanished, and a fourth place finish last season saw them reach the playoffs but Fulham was last year’s team of destiny and won a slim 1-0 victory over Villa in the final, so the fans have been through this ringer before.
West Brom, meanwhile, is another recent Premier League mainstay looking to get back to the promised land where they’d been for eight straight seasons before last year’s relegation. West Brom has been promoted three since the turn of the millennium, but all came via automatic promotion – both of which defender Chris Brunt were with the club for – while both playoff journeys over that span ended in disappointment.
Aston Villa will have leading scorer Tammy Abraham back from a hamstring injury, a major boost as they look for a trip back to the top flight. The hosts are in great form – an important feature for any playoff team – as they were seven points off the playoff spots in 10th back in mid-February, but rattled off 10 straight wins beginning in early March, and while they’ve slipped in the last two league matches, there is far more riding on this weekend’s tilt.
Derby County v. Leeds United
The top seed in the playoffs gets going first as Leeds United looks for its way back to the top flight for the first time since relegation in 2004. Derby County, meanwhile, hasn’t been back since its disastrous 2007/08 campaign that set the record low for a point haul in a Premier League season.
Still, this matchup has more teeth than just a chance to reach Wembley – it’s the first time these two teams will meet since the Spygate mayhem that marred their January matchup. Frank Lampard will now look for revenge over Marcelo Bielsa who admitted to spying on Derby training before the weekend match, with the former Chelsea midfielder also hoping to turn around the results of the regular season, where Derby was beaten by Leeds twice during the regular season.
Leeds, meanwhile, had aspirations of automatic promotion, but a poor finish to the season saw them fall out of a top-two position with just three wins in their last nine league matches, and more specifically no wins in the final four, with three losses in that span. Bielsa will need to pick the team up, known for his high-intensity managerial style that could be wearing the team out, as the playoff takes no prisoners and bad recent form can be deadly.
Derby County will have plenty of experience at this level, although to this point with nothing to show for it. The club has earned a playoff spot in four of the last six seasons, but have only made it to Wembley once, falling to Queens Park Rangers in the in the 2014 playoff final.