Date: Monday 27th May at 16:00 (Pretoria time, GMT +2)
The richest game in club football is one of the most hotly anticipating clashes of the English calendar, and this season’s showpiece pits two teams of Premier League standing against one another. Taking place from the home of football on Bank Holiday Monday in the United Kingdom, all eyes will be on the event.
Aston Villa and Derby Country were both involved in enthralling battles to reach this point, but it will be count for very little unless they can finish the job off. With the match worth an estimated $100 million; the stakes couldn’t be higher for either side, but there will be a feeling that should Aston Villa fail on their quest for Premier League football this term, then it could be a long way back to the place where they believe they deserve to be.
The announcement of Dean Smith as the club’s new manager earlier in the season was the turning point that the fans’ were hoping, after the reign of Steve Bruce began to become stale after a slow start to the season. Smith incorporated his values of trusting young players quickly, and this allowed Jack Grealish and Tammy Abraham to flourish. Villa went on a club record run of ten consecutive victories which propelled them into a late Playoff place in the Championship. A draw against Leeds and a defeat against Norwich City on the final day did little to damage the mood around Villa Park.
They were pitting against West Midlands rivals West Bromwich Albion in the semi-finals of the post-season competition, and despite falling behind to a Dwight Gayle goal in the first half, the Villa fought back to claim a vital advantage. The second leg was tense, and that wasn’t helped after Craig Dawson headed the Baggies level on aggregate. Villa looked void of ideas in the final third, and were only able to muster six shots on target in 120 minutes of football; despite Chris Brunt being sent off for the home side after 80 minutes. However, lady luck was to shine on Smith’s side in the shootout, and after missed spot kicks from Mason Holgate and Ahmed Hagazi for the Albion; it was Grealish who stepped up to fire his boyhood club to Wembley.
Expectations were high for this season among Derby fans after the announcement of legendary midfielder Frank Lampard as their new manager. The decision has been vindicated after a strong finish to the season ensured a playoff berth for the young County side. Smart business was the order of the day for County and loan deals for Mason Mount and Harry Wilson have been fundamental to their success.
The matchup between Leeds United and Derby was a neutral’s dream scenario. The plot had thickened throughout the season after Marcelo Bielsa admitted to spying on County ahead of a Championship fixture between the two. Leeds were fined for their under-hand tactics and ultimately the saga derailed their automatic push for promotion. It was Bielsa’s side who seized the initiative in the first leg at Pride Park, as Kemar Roofe scored the decisive goal.
However, the second leg was nothing short of Championship classic. History didn’t look good for Lampard as no team had ever lost the first leg of a Championship playoff and progressed to Wembley. Derby were in no mood to play by the history books. Stuart Dallas put Leeds ahead in the first half, but Jack Marriot, Mount and Wilson goals turned the tie on its head. Dallas replied for Leeds, but after a second yellow was given to Leeds’ Gaetano Berardi; it seemed like the writing was on the wall. Marriot- who was only introduced at half time- popped up to score the match-deciding goal and sealed County’s place in their second Championship Playoff final in five years.
Aston Villa could be without Axel Tuanzebe after the loanee from Manchester United limped off in the dying stages against West Brom. Meanwhile, James Chester will face a late test. Kortney Hause and Orjan Nyland remain out.
Scott Malone will miss out for Derby after being sent off against Leeds, however, Ashley Cole is fine replacement. Jack Mariott is expected to start following his exploits at Elland Road. Meanwhile, Curtis Davies and Craig Forsyth will miss out.
Head to Head
If the form book is anything to by then it could be a comfortable afternoon at Wembley for Villa. They have beaten Derby twice this season; 3-0 at Pride Park and 4-0 at Villa Park. A smart bet for punters here would be over 2.5 goals. Furthermore, Villa have only lost once in their past nine against County; so they are understandably the 1.25 favourites with BetXChange.
This could be the most open Playoff final in some time, with tons of talent in the attacking positions on both sides. Jack Grealish will be a standout player and will look to stamp his name all over this Wembley showpiece. The combination play between himself and 26-goal striker Tammy Abraham will ensure that it is a memorable day at the national stadium for Villa.