The Championship play-offs rarely fail to deliver a healthy dose of drama and excitement as four sides make one final push for Premier League football. The final act in the story of this Championship season will be contested by Leeds United, West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa and Derby County and, as so often happens in the beautiful game, the reality of the fixtures are better than any scripted drama.
Each semi-final, played over two legs, has its own story woven into the fabric of the fixture. A mouth-watering concoction of controversy and intrigue has loomed over these four teams, stemming from their regular season meetings, all of which will be simmering just below the surface, played against a backdrop of dramatic football with the highest of stakes.
Leeds United and Derby County
Leeds United and Derby County go head-to-head with contrasting emotions for the sides at the close of the regular season. Marcelo Bielsa had his sights set on automatic promotion as recently as weeks ago but Leeds stuttered into a play-off spot, losing out to Norwich City and Sheffield United. Derby County had to wait until the final day to secure their spot, pipping Middlesbrough to the final place by beating West Brom.
Leeds secured a league double over Derby this season winning 4-1 at Pride Park and 2-0 at home, but they head into this tie in dreadful form. Marcelo Bielsa’s side haven’t reacted well to missing out on automatic promotion, ending their league campaign without a win in four, losing three. The Whites must put aside their disappointment and rediscover the form that had them within touching distance of the promised land.
Derby County are hoping that this is their year having reached the play-offs for the fourth time in six seasons. Frank Lampard has successfully navigated his first season in charge and will want the Premier League cherry on top. The Rams will be quietly confident as they head into the tie with just one defeat in their last 12 league games. They may have just squeezed into the final spot on the final day, but Derby County will be mighty difficult to beat.
Controversy Revived: ‘Spygate’
Football often goes hand in hand with soap opera and this season’s Championship play-offs has thrown up fixtures with intriguing underlying stories. Leeds United were fined £200,000 earlier this season for ‘Spygate’ when the methods of Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa were brought to light. Bielsa sent a member of his staff to watch a Derby training session from a nearby field ahead of the two sides’ meeting in January. Both Bielsa and Lampard will be fully focused on the football but with the past controversy already invading the media questions, the narrative seems to be set.
West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa
Both West Brom and Aston Villa have been assured of their play-off spot for some time. The fierce Midlands rivals were afforded the opportunity to rest key players as they cruised toward the finish line. The Baggies have taken the opportunity to slowly nurse key midfielder Matt Phillips back to full fitness in preparation for the play-offs. Whilst Aston Villa rested five of their regular players in their final league fixture, including Jack Grealish.
West Brom could’ve snatched third from Leeds on the final day but were unable to capitalise on The Whites’ poor form as The Baggies slipped to defeat at Derby. They, by their own admission, have not played well in recent weeks but they are expected to raise their game for the play-offs. Though they will have to do so without backup striker Hal Robson-Kanu following his straight red card against Derby. A petulant kick out at Derby’s Bradley Johnson leaves West Brom without their go-to striker from the bench, an added headache for James Shan.
Aston Villa are arguably the favourites heading into the all-important fixtures. Dean Smith has completely transformed the fortunes of the Midlands club and now has his sights set on the Premier League. He brings his side into the play-offs having won ten of their last 12 games, only tasting defeat to Champions Norwich on the final day. West Brom were able to take four points from Aston Villa in their league meetings but the stakes are now much, much higher.
Controversy Revived: ‘Hand of Rod’
Aston Villa were left seething when these old enemies met at The Hawthorns back in December. A late leveller in the 2-2 draw scored by Jay Rodriguez sparked controversy as it very clearly was scored with his hand. The goal dubbed the ‘Hand of Rod’ was accidental yet significant and is not forgotten. This bitter rivalry has an added spice, not that it was needed.
The first leg of the semi-finals will be played on Saturday 11th May. The Midlands derby kicks off from Villa Park at 12:30 followed later by Derby vs Leeds, 17:15 kick-off for that one. Aston Villa play their second leg against West Brom at The Hawthorns on Tuesday 14th May, 20:00 kick-off, and Derby round off the semi-finals at Elland Road against Leeds, 19:45 kick-off.