The final spot for promotion to the Premier League is at stake as well as hundreds of millions of pounds in broadcast revenue as the world’s richest playoff game takes place Monday at Wembley when Aston Villa face Derby County.
Potential Starting XIs
The high-stakes match affords the winner with approximately £175 million when factoring in revenue that comes from the Premier League’s domestic and international television rights contracts and as much as £300 million over the course of five seasons should the team remain in the top flight for a second consecutive term.
The victors get a lifeline to riches and potential economic stability — the rewards that also come with the price of intense pressure trying to stay 17th or higher to continue raking in those nine-figure paydays from TV rights deals. The losers get the stark reality of a £7 million consolation in Championship broadcast rights that will do little in helping maintain a quality side to finish top-six next term.
Last year, Fulham’s 1-0 victory over Aston Villa on Tom Cairney’s goal was worth approximately £170 million, but those new-found riches did the Cottagers little good — their free-spending ways in the summer market attempting to bolster their side did little good as they finished second-bottom. Fulham again find themselves set to toil through a 46-match slog for the second time in three seasons.
For Aston Villa, one of the charter members of the Premier League and an evergreen until their relegation in 2016, this is their second straight year in the final after bottoming out with a mid-table finish in the Championship in 2017. The arrival of Dean Smith in October rejuvenated the Midlands side, who were 14th when replaced Steve Bruce.
A 10-match winning streak highlighted the Villans’ charge to fifth in the table comfortably qualifying for the playoffs. They then survived in the semifinals against fourth-place West Bromwich Albion, advancing on penalties after playing to a 2-2 aggregate over 210 minutes.
Villa keeper Jed Steer made two saves in the shootout before Tammy Abraham buried the fifth attempt to send the Midlands side through. Being back in the final for the second straight year has only intensified the pressure on Aston Villa to return to the Premier League after a three-season absence, which the players recognise.
“This year we have to get it right and get the club back to the Premier League. It’s so important for everyone,” Villa’s Ahmed Elmohamady told the club’s official website. “Last season was so disappointing. Hopefully now this is our time.
“When you go through defeat and you see the pain for all those fans, it makes you stronger and more determined to go out there and put it right. It’s what this club deserves. We can’t wait for Monday. Everyone is excited for it. We’re going for it.”
Villa are the first team since West Ham United in 2004-05 to reach the final in consecutive years, and they are hoping lightning strikes twice as the Irons won promotion the second year after losing the first. The last side to fail to advance in back-to-back seasons were Leicester City in 1992-93.
Villa have a potent offence, paced by Abraham. His 25 goals were second in the Championship to Norwich City’s Teemu Pukki (29), and the Chelsea loanee added one from the spot in the semifinals versus West Brom before his decisive penalty in the shootout.
There is plenty of quality in the Villans midfield, led by talisman Jack Grealish. All but certain to be in the Premier League next season regardless of the outcome of this match, Grealish contributed six goals and seven assists this season but is not alone in distribution skills. Conor Hourihane, who sat behind the midfield in the second-leg against West Brom, led Villa with 11 assists while John McGinn added nine and Elmohamady seven.
“He’s been a brilliant leader for us and a very good team-mate too,” McGinn told Villa’s website about Grealish. “Everyone just sees the haircut and things like that. They don’t see how motivated he is to bring success to this football club.
“He is working ever so hard to become the best player he can be. For me to be playing alongside him in midfield, I’m lucky – and the club are lucky to have him. Since James Chester picked up a few injuries, he’s become captain. He’s used that extra pressure to kick his game to the next level. He’s thrived on it.”
The spine of the defence is fortified by a pair of loanees — Tyrone Mings (Bournemouth) and Axel Tuanzebe (Manchester United). The latter has declared himself fit to play after shaking off an ankle injury suffered in the second leg.
Steer, who took over the No. 1 role in late February following the ruptured Achilles suffered by Orjan Nyland, was on the winning end of Villa’s 4-0 mauling of Derby County at home March 2 in which all four goals were scored in the first half.
For Derby County, it has been more than a decade in the wilderness of the Championship following their relegation in 2008 after the worst season in Premier League history by any side in terms of wins (1) and points (11). The Rams flirted with a fall to the First Division in 2011 before stabilising, and Monday’s match marks their first appearance in the playoff final since 2014. This was also their fourth top-six finish in the past six seasons — they lost to Fulham in the semifinals last year 2-1 on aggregate.
The season has been a remarkable run by first-year coach Frank Lampard, whose efforts in getting Derby County to the doorstep of the Premiership has linked him with possibly returning to Stamford Bridge as Chelsea coach should owner Roman Abramovich part ways with Maurizio Sarri after the Europa League final.
Lampard has downplayed those rumours, calling it “an obvious link all season,” in a Saturday news conference and is focused on the task at hand of getting Derby County into the top flight.
“This is right up there in terms of the personal achievement and how I feel,” Lampard told RamsTV. “I probably forget as my career was a while ago now but that feeling that I had pre-Leeds in the Play-Off Semi Finals and how much I, the players and the fans, wanted to win that game was something special.
“To get over that hurdle was a huge feeling but the dust has settled. We are in the final and we’ve not won anything yet so this is the big one. It goes right up there in terms of how I feel going into it as all the major games I was lucky to take part in as a player. I will be proud. I’m walking out as a manager of a team and squad that have done fantastically well, regardless of the result on Monday.”
Derby certainly did not make their road to Wembley an easy one, becoming the first side in the 33-year history of the playoffs to reach the final after losing the first leg at home. Lampard did make the key move in their 4-2 second-leg victory, introducing Jack Marriott off the bench, and the striker responded by starting the fight back from two goals down on aggregate just before halftime before sealing a spot at Wembley five minutes from time.
Lampard has been able to coalesce a side invigorated by youth throughout Derby’s attack, paced by Liverpool loanee Harry Wilson and Chelsea loanee Mason Mount. Wilson led the Rams with 16 goals and slotted a penalty in the second leg, while Mason also had a goal to help rally Derby before Marriott’s late heroics for the match-winner.
One area Lampard will lean on for veteran poise and guile will be at left back, where 38-year-old Ashley Cole is expected to get the start with Scott Malone suspended for this contest. Cole is no stranger to big moments at Wembley or any other venue for that matter — he is an England international centurion, one of Arsenal’s “Invincibles,” thrice a Premier League winner and a seven-time FA Cup winner.
He had been contemplating retirement at season’s end, but with a chance at promotion and a return to the Premier League, all that talk has been put on hold to help the Rams in their biggest of moments in over a decade.
“I am happy that I am playing but in terms of me, I don’t know. I am trying not to think about that yet. I just want to try and do my best on the day and get Derby promoted,” Cole said. “Then I will sit down and think about what I am going to do. I don’t want to try put the focus on me and kind of confuse myself. I know how my body feels, I know what I can bring or what I can’t bring anymore.”
Villa did an emphatic double over Derby during the regular season, first winning 3-0 at Pride Park in November shortly after Smith’s arrival. McGinn, Abraham and Hourihane all scored in the final 16 minutes. The 4-0 hiding at Villa Park triggered the 10-match winning streak during which Aston Villa outscored opponents 23-5.
Villa owner Wes Edens is expected to be in attendance since his NBA team, the Milwaukee Bucks, were eliminated in the Eastern Conference finals by the Toronto Raptors late Saturday night in the U.S.
(Wembley Stadium photo courtesy SportPesa official Twitter account)
(Jed Steer photo courtesy AVFC Pride Twitter account)
(Jack Grealish and Tammy Abraham photo courtesy Express&Star official Twitter account)
(Frank Lampard photo courtesy Derby County official Twitter account)
(Mason Mount and Harry Wilson photo courtesy Derby County official Twitter account)