Marathonbet Preview: Championship Play Offs
With Top Four and relegation matters effectively settled in the Premier League, anybody looking for a dramatic football fix this weekend will be switching their attention to the Championship.
The tension is building for fans of Fulham, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Derby County ahead of the play-offs. Can any team gain the upper hand?
Derby County v Fulham – Friday, 7:45pm
Both sets of fans have reasons to be nervous going into this semi-final. The Rams and Cottagers have both experienced the agony of play off disappointment in recent seasons, and this game will be defined as much by who edges the mental battle rather than the physical battle.
On pure footballing ability and technique, it’s the away team who will start out as most neutrals’ pick to make it all the way to Wembley after another hugely impressive season, with the West London side taking their automatic promotion push to the final day.
The big unknown in this one is whether Fulham will be shattered from losing both their 23-game unbeaten streak and the race for automatic promotion on the same day. Slavisa Jokanovic’s side will be looking to keep things tight here and go again with home support behind them on Monday night.
Verdict: The Rams can blow hot and cold, but elation at putting the annual ‘Derby choke’ behind them with an impressive late season rally could see Gary Rowett’s men just edge out a Fulham side reeling from just falling short. It’ll be tight, but home advantage could play into Derby’s hands.
Middlesbrough v Aston Villa – Saturday, 5:15pm
Two old heads collide at the Riverside on Saturday afternoon as Premier League perennials Tony Pulis and Steve Bruce fight for the right to reclaim their place at the top table.
Villa have had the luxury of kicking back over the last few matches after effectively locking down fourth place weeks ago, so the most interesting talking point ahead of this match is whether they will be rewarded or punished for their lack of intensity in recent matches.
Will Villa have the match sharpness against a Boro side who have been scrapping for every point right up to the wire? Or will a refreshed core of Villa players take advantage of tired legs?
With both Pulis and Bruce not exactly known for risk-taking, both may well settle for a stalemate and keeping the tie in the balance ahead of Tuesday’s rematch at Villa Park.
Verdict: It’s unlikely to be a classic with both managers having enough experience in the game to know the importance of not letting a first-leg tie slip out their grasp. Honours even as both sides display caution.
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All image sources from PA Images