On Saturday 26th May, Aston Villa and Fulham will compete for football’s biggest cash prize: The Championship play-off final. Although to the neutral it may be nothing more than an appetiser for the Champions League final, it’s an enormous game for two clubs battling to return to the Premier League.
The Championship Play-off Final: Five to Watch
Fulham have enjoyed a wonderful season, narrowly missing out on automatic promotion on the final day. Former Watford manager Slaviša Jokanović’s side play a possessive style of football, as evidenced by the stats. Fulham finished top of the average possession table for the season with 55%. Furthermore, they also had the highest pass accuracy (83%) and shortest pass length (17m). Importantly, they’ve been able to translate their dominance into goals scored (76, second highest) and chances created (448, third highest).
Aston Villa started the season sluggishly, winning just one of their first five games. Steve Bruce’s side, though, turned this around. A steady season saw them reach the play-offs comfortably. Their solid defence provides security for their plethora of attacking options. Like Fulham, Villa have scored a high number of goals, particularly from set pieces. This could be key on Saturday. Villa have a clear aerial advantage over Fulham, who are ninth bottom in headed goals conceded this season.
The Manchester United loanee has been vital to their efforts this season and will need to perform on Saturday. The keeper can consider himself lucky to be available for the final following his handling of the ball outside of the area during their semi-final win. He kept an impressive 20 clean sheets this season, despite being one of the league’s busier keepers, making 106 saves during the campaign (seventh highest). The loanee will have the opportunity to play in the Premier League next season, with rumoured interest from Cardiff, so defeat on Saturday means this could be Johnstone’s final appearance for Villa.
Adomah finished the season in fine form, resulting in a call-up to the Ghana squad for pre-World Cup friendlies. He also won Villa’s Player of the Season award and was named in the EFL team of the season. Fulham are susceptible to the counter and Adomah’s pace will be key in exploiting this. An impressive Championship Play-off final will see a fitting end to a good season.
Another Premier League loanee, Snodgrass has added an extra touch of class since his arrival in August. The midfielder has weighed in with seven goals and 14 assists this season. With Fulham vulnerable in the air defensively, his quality of delivery could make a key difference.
Fulham’s captain and playmaker has had another impressive season, thus drawing interest from West Ham in January. Cairney’s inclusion in listings for EFL Player of the Season award and team of the season recognising his achievement. Cairney keeps the ball well, his pass accuracy of 91% the team’s highest. He creates chances for others, also weighing in with five goals of his own this season.
Sessegnon has been Fulham’s star this season. The recently turned eighteen-year-old was not included in Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad.
An international debut may not be long after. The full-back turned winger has scored 15 goals whilst creating 49 chances in 44 appearances this season and has been rewarded with the Championship player of the season award. Furthermore, he became the first non-Premier League player to be nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Season award. His raw pace and trickery, developed via cage football in his childhood, have left defenders answerless all season. Alan Hutton will therefore have to be on his game to stop him on Saturday.
Since joining on loan in February, Mitrovic has been in excellent form, scoring 11 goals in 15 appearances. Previously regarded as a loose cannon at Newcastle, Mitrovic has positively channelled his passion at Craven Cottage. At times his play has been too good for the division, his strength and quality obvious. He has been aerially dominant, winning 51% of his aerial duels. Quality service from Sessegnon and Fredericks could lead to John Terry and James Chester having a stressful Championship Play-off final.