The Championship play-offs get under way on Saturday and the race to join Norwich City and Sheffield United in the promised land of the Premier League features arguably its most stellar line-up ever.
Leeds United, West Brom, Aston Villa and Derby County all have vast experience of the English top-flight. Midlands rivals Villa and West Brom are looking to bounce back after short stints away – the Baggies came down 12 months ago, while Villa have been away for two terms.
For Derby and Leeds though it’s been a long wait. Derby hold the unwanted record of being the Premier League’s worst team ever, statistically. They accrued just 11 points when relegated on their last appearance 11 years ago. Leeds, meanwhile, were playing in the UEFA Cup as recently as the 2002/03 season and lost to Valencia in the Champions League semi-finals just 18 years ago.
There’s plenty at stake – including money – for the play-off champion, with the final to be played at Wembley on May 27. Here, we take a look at each of the teams desperate to be there.
Manager: Marcelo Bielsa
League finish: 3rd
Premier League experience: 1992-2004
Best finish: 3rd (99/00)
Star player: Pablo Hernandez
Story of the season: Madcap manager Marcelo Bielsa ensures Leeds are always in the headlines – whether it’s been for their football or the sideshow off the field.
Say what you will about the manic Argentine, it’s not been dull. In February the club was fined £200,000 and given a severe reprimand after a member of Bielsa’s coaching staff was caught spying at rivals Derby’s training ground ahead of their January clash, which Leeds subsequently won 2-0.
On the pitch, they were among the leading contenders to go up automatically, thanks to some stellar form in the first half of the campaign.
But the Championship is a notorious beast to escape from – a mammoth 46-game season is arduous for even the most experienced of managers and talented of squads.
Leeds suffered just three defeats in their opening 23 games, to sit first. But they plummeted with 10 defeats in their remaining 23, dropping out of the automatic spots in the final month. Just three wins in their final nine games saw them pipped to that coveted second spot by Sheffield United, who eventually finished six points ahead.
Former Chelsea prospect Patrick Bamford was a shrewd £7million signing from Middlesbrough last summer – the 25-year-old bagged nine goals in 22 appearances. Kemar Roofe led the way for the Whites with 14 league goals, while veteran Spaniard Hernandez bagged 12 and also contributed 12 assists – the league’s joint-second most.
Leeds boast one of the best defences in the division – only the Blades and Boro shipped fewer than their 50 goals. They also contributed a joint-high three players to the team of the season – centre-backs Pontus Jansson and Liam Cooper, as well as former Valencia man Hernandez.
Despite faltering, the Whites will prove a stern test for Derby in the play-offs, but the Yorkshire side will have to grit their teeth and forage for their early season form.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Manager: James Shan
League finish: 4th
Premier League experience: 2002/03, 2004-06, 2008/09, 2010-2018
Best finish: 8th (12/13)
Star player: Jay Rodriguez
Story of the season: The Baggies have the opportunity to bounce right back into the big time –no mean feat in a division that is supremely tough to escape from.
They’ve also had their trials and tribulations this season – not least the unpopular sacking of manager and idolised former player Darren Moore, strangely let go in March despite West Brom occupying fourth spot.
It followed a 1-1 draw at home to Ipswich – the Tractor Boys would end up being relegated – although their two defeats were to fellow play-off opponents Leeds and promoted Sheffield United. Replacement James Shan has led them to an impressive six wins and one draw in their final nine games. Even still, they finished in the same place as they were when Moore was dismissed.
The Baggies have been among the division’s great entertainers. The Midlands club plundered 87 goals on their way to fourth spot – only champions Norwich City (93) scored more. Strike duo Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez have been mesmeric – Gayle rocketed in 23 goals in 40 appearances on loan from Newcastle.
He picked up the Championship’s player of the month in September and April – the only player to win it more than once. Should he continue to feast and fire them back to English football’s top table, West Brom will surely be in contact with the Magpies with the hope of swooping on a permanent deal for the 29-year-old.
Rodriguez has also revitalised himself in the second tier – notching 22 league goals in 44 games, his joint-best single season career haul and highest since netting 17 for Southampton in 2013/14. In addition to six assists it’s been an impressively well-rounded campaign for the one-time England cap.
West Brom have certainly been rewarded for their consistency. They briefly occupied top spot in September but haven’t been outside the top six since November 3, and have been inside the top four since November 28.
Been a good strong end to the season for us, looking forward to the playoffs now ⚽️⚽️ pic.twitter.com/CmpwXpEAXp— Jack Grealish (@JackGrealish1) 5 May 2019
Manager: Dean Smith
League finish: 5th
Premier League experience: 1992-2016
Best finish: 2nd (92/93)
Star player: Jack Grealish
Story of the season: Another big gun hoping to break back into the elite. But in a league that is littered with fallen giants struggling to bridge the gargantuan gap from the second to top tier, it looked for a long spell as if the Midlands club were going to stall as they had in their maiden campaign in 2016/17. Following their Premier League relegation the previous season they meandered to a mediocre 13th place finish in the Championship.
Fortunes improved a year later as they finished fourth and made the play-off final, but lost out to Fulham. And initially they looked bruised from that experience this season. Brentford manager Smith was the surprise choice to replace sacked Steve Bruce on October 10, the Villains earning victory over Swansea in his first game but then losing to Norwich and Queens Park Rangers.
A superb run of just five defeats in the following 31, however, has contributed to Villa’s vibrant second half of the campaign – which has been fuelled by Tammy Abraham’s 25 goals in 37 games. Only Norwich’s flying Finn Teemu Pukki (29) has found the net more times, while Chelsea loanee Abraham has navigated his way into the Championship’s team of the season – alongside another key figure, Grealish.
Floundering in 14th when Smith took charge, Villa have vastly improved but only surged into play-off contention in recent months – entering the top six with a 3-0 thrashing of fellow promotion-chasers Boro in mid-March.
Aided by a scintillating run of 10 straight wins in March and April, Smith’s side are the form team heading into the play-offs, even if they did lose to the champion Canaries on the final day.
With Republic of Ireland international Conor Hourihane (11 assists) and Scotland midfielder John McGinn (9) supplying the ammo, they are deemed the favourites to go up.
Manager: Frank Lampard
League finish: 6th
Premier League experience: 1996-2002 and 2007/08
Best finish: 8th (98/99)
Star player: Harry Wilson
Story of the season: Appointing one of England’s greatest and most capped players as manager in the summer was an exciting, if slightly starry-eyed, shot in the dark by Derby.
But Chelsea great Frank Lampard has impressed hugely as the Rams charge toward the Premier League. They secured the fourth and final spot in the play-offs on the final day with a nerve-shredding 3-1 triumph over West Brom.
They don’t possess monstrous goalscorers like Villa and West Brom and are comfortably the lowest scorers (69) of the four teams in the play-offs – Leeds have netted four more while West Brom (87) and Villa (82) are way ahead.
But what Derby – and Lampard – should be championed for is their ambitious youth project. Lampard has delved into his extensive contacts book to bring in a host of Premier League starlets on loan.
Chelsea duo Fikayo Tomori and Mason Mount, and Liverpool’s Welsh wonder Harry Wilson, have all shone. Defender Tomori, 21, claimed the club’s player of the year, attacking midfielder Mount, 20, has been a key creative force while 22-year-old Wilson leads the Rams with 10 goals in 32 games.
Youth team graduate Jayden Bogle, meanwhile, has been instrumental at right-back. The 18-year-old has played 40 games, leads the side with eight assists and collected Derby’s young player of the season accolade.
They face Leeds for a place in the play-off final, a fixture that carries plenty of meaning from the ‘Spygate’ scandal.
The team that finishes sixth has so often been the side to go up – they are usually the most in-form team at the end of a gruelling campaign, and Derby have only tasted defeat once in their last 12.
They already have big-game experience from earlier in the season – Lampard got one over his former boss Jose Mourinho as Derby knocked out Manchester United in the EFL Cup before being downed 3-2 by Chelsea, the club he made his name at, in the fourth round.
Guardiola said Luis Enrique’s Barcelona side with Lionel Messi and Neymar in attack was the most difficult team he’s ever played against but Liverpool were a close second.
City are two points behind the league-leading Reds but will have the opportunity to retake the summit when they host Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium on Monday night.
“In my career as a manager I played against incredible sides. But there are especially two which are ‘wow.’ One was Barcelona under (Luis) Enrique, with Neymar and (Lionel) Messi up front. The second one is Liverpool,” said the Catalan.
Hear more from the City boss by watching the clip above
The influential midfielder was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek early in the first half of Sunday’s 3-0 victory over Watford, and he could be absent as they pursue progress to the Europa League final and third place in the Premier League.
Defeating Watford, coupled with Arsenal being held by Brighton later on Sunday, has already ensured that they will finish in the top four, but the much-maligned Sarri is targeting the type of successful conclusion to their season that had long appeared beyond their reach.
A wider concern surrounding the 28-year-old Kante’s potential absence is that despite victory Chelsea long appeared tired and lacked intensity before taking the lead early in the second half, and discussing Kante’s condition, Sarri said: “The problem is with his hamstring.
“But I made a mistake because, probably, he had to rest. Sometimes it’s very difficult to put on the bench a player so important like (Eden) Hazard, like Kante, but you have to do it.
“We have to wait until the morning (to determine the severity of the injury), but it’s very difficult to recover him for the next two matches. We have to try and recover him for the (potential Europa League) final.”
Watford manager Javi Gracia recognised that his team may have been distracted by the prospect of their FA Cup final against Manchester City later this month, and he explained: “We have to play the final. It’s normal for it to be on our minds, but we were focused on this game (against Chelsea).
“We have to finish the league next week, and then have an important final. If your behaviour always is defending badly at corners and free-kicks, I’d be worried. But it’s not like that. I’d prefer to be optimistic.”
Provided by Press Association Sport