Championship: Key players to watch as race for third Premier League spot heats up

Matt Jones - Editor 23:27 07/05/2019
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The race to snatch the coveted third and final Premier League place on offer from the Championship begins this weekend as sleeping giants of English football Leeds United, West Brom, Aston Villa and Derby County contest the play-offs.

The play-off final – to be played at Wembley on May 27 – is the richest game in club football, with Tom Cairney’s winning goal for Fulham against Villa 12 months ago worth a reported £170 million to his club.

Not to mention, there’s the golden ticket of a place in the top-flight up for grabs, with teams hopeful of rubbing shoulders with England’s elite.

In the two-legged ties kicking off on Saturday, Derby host Leeds at Pride Park and West Brom head to Villa Park, with the return legs played three and four days later.

Ahead of the seismic clashes, let’s have a look at eight players who could prove to be pivotal figures for their sides.

LEEDS UNITED

Pablo Hernandez

Pablo Hernandez

They say football’s a young man’s game these days, but Spanish veteran Hernandez has turned that analogy on its head with a stunning season in his 34th year – scoring 12 goals in 37 appearances and also laying on 12 more.

The creator from Castellon has fuelled Leeds’ promotion bid and his output really should have led to automatic promotion – if not for a stunning capitulation in the final months of the season from Marcelo Bielsa’s men, they would have already ended a 15-year wait for a top-flight return.

His average of three key passes per game is the most in the Championship, 0.6 more than Norwich’s Emiliano Buendia.

The former Valencia man has enjoyed the most prolific goalscoring season of his career and, as he enters the twilight of it, he’ll be desperate to conjure some magic in order to possibly end his career in England’s top echelon.

Pontus Jansson

Pontus Jansson

The overriding emotion for Leeds fans and players at being in the position of settling for the play-offs might be devastation given how they looked a certainty to go up automatically for so long.

But, when you consider they’ve never reached the play-offs in eight previous seasons in England’s second tier, it should give them renewed fire to finally end the club’s nomadic existence since Premier League relegation in 2003/04.

But Bielsa has transformed the Yorkshire tykes and no man has more embodied their spirit than Sweden centre-back Jansson.

A ferocious player with a combative nature, he almost left the club last summer but admitted: “I said to my agent ‘I don’t want to leave Leeds in this way’.”

He stayed and he has led from the back – his 2.3 interceptions and 2.4 tackles per game are among the best figures in the division – and, alongside centre-back partner Liam Cooper, was named in the team of the season.

WEST BROM

Dwight Gayle

Dwight Gayle

Gayle embodies the divide in class that is often evident between the top and second tier in England. He is not the first player – particularly strikers – to have struggled adapting to Premier League, having been so prolific in the tier below.

A total of 21 goals have been nettled at the top level for Crystal Palace and Newcastle during four seasons (99 games). It’s not an horrendous return by any means, but the 29-year-old has seemingly found his level.

But, in the league below, Gayle enjoyed a prolific season, rattling in 23 goals in 40 appearances to finish joint third in the scoring charts. He is also the only player to win the Championship’s player of the month award twice – in August and April.

He’ll be keen to carry that form over to the play-offs and help bag the Baggies a spot back in the big time.

Jay Rodriguez

Jay Rodriguez

Strike partner Rodriguez has been just as lethal in front of goal for the Hawthorns side, hitting 22 goals in 44 starts.

The duo have united to form a devastating combo, but Rodriguez has, crucially, played a more pivotal, all-round role, often encompassing sacrificing his own glory for the greater good of the team.

The Burnley-born forward, 29, has honed his game as he approaches his 30s, providing six assists and adding another layer to his game.

Often shunted to the wing – as he was for final game of the regular season against Derby – he has allowed Gayle to flourish, while his natural athleticism, speed and vision have linked defence and attack in the transition terrifically.

ASTON VILLA

Tammy Abraham

Tammy Abraham

A striker with a bright future who seemingly will be playing in the Premier League next season, whether that’s with Villa or not.

The Chelsea loanee, 21, has plundered 25 goals in 37 outings for the Villains – he is second only to prolific Norwich frontman Teemu Pukki (29).

After failing to fully get to grips to the Premier League a year ago while on loan at Swansea (he scored five times in 31 appearances) the two-times England capped forward has honed his craft in the testing environment of the Championship.

He rejected a loan move to Wolves in January in favour of staying to help aid the Midlands giants’ promotion push. Villa – and he – have flourished as a result, with Abraham netting 11 goals in 18 games during 2019 as Villa have surged from obscurity into the promotion discussion under Dean Smith.

Conor Hourihane

Conor Hourihane

And the man supplying much of the ammunition for Abraham has been Irishman Hourihane – acquired from League One Barnsley in 2017.

He was part of the Villa team that suffered agony a year ago as they missed out on a swift return to the Premier League – losing to Fulham at Wembley.

But that hasn’t fazed the Republic of Ireland international who has been a revelation for the Villains this year. His 11 assists in 43 games is joint third in the division while he has also weighed in with seven goals – third for Villa behind forwards Abraham and Jonathan Kodjia.

Jack Grealish gets much of the plaudits for Villa – he is a force of nature in midfield – but the 28-year-old Irishman, more of an unsung hero, has more goals and assists than the darling of the Holte End.

DERBY COUNTY

Harry Wilson

harry-wilson

Frank Lampard’s stunning success during his first managerial role at Derby has taken some by surprise, especially seeing as the Rams’ rise has owed more to youthful exuberance than the experience of seasoned campaigners.

It is a long and arduous campaign negotiating the Championship’s gruelling 46-game schedule, but Liverpool loanee Wilson has been the beacon for Derby, even more so than wily veterans Richard Keogh and Bradley Johnson.

The Welsh wonder – alongside fellow loan stars Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori (both from Lampard’s old club Chelsea) – has been instrumental in Derby’s promotion push. The 22-year-old is County’s top scorer with 10 in the league.

His versatility across the front line has been as key as his long-distance shooting and penchant for spectacular strikes – he won Derby’s goal of the month five times in a row from October to February.

Jayden Bogle

Jayden Bogle

Norwich right-back Max Aarons made it into the Championship’s team of the season, but it could easily have been another academy graduate slotting in. Bogle has enjoyed a mind-boggling campaign.

The 18-year-old has run out 32 times for the Rams in the league this season – only centre-backs Keogh and Tomori have featured more. In a breakout season for the impressive teenager he has epitomised Lampard’s reliance on and trust in youth. He is even the Rams’ leading creator of goals, having laid on eight – only six fewer than Brentford’s Algerian schemer Said Benrahma.

His marauding runs from right-back have been a feature of Derby’s season as the Rams – who only secured the fourth and final play-off spot with a 3-1 home win over West Brom on the final day – plot a raid back into the Premier League for the first time in more than a decade.

Bogle’s brilliant season has been rewarded with Derby’s young player of the year accolade.

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