Championship

Wide men likely to decide Championship playoff final

 • by Thomas McIlroy
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The Championship is an endless slog. England’s second tier has eight more games than the Premier League and should a team finish in they playoff positions, they face three more as they aim to reach Wembley and get promoted.

When Aston Villa and Fulham meet on Saturday at the national stadium, it will be their 49th league match of the campaign. But it will be the game with the biggest importance, with the prize for the winner being a place in the top flight next term.

Fulham go into the match as slight favourites, after finishing third. Villa ended the season five points behind the Londoners in fourth.

It is the first time since 2015 the two teams who finished third and fourth have reached Wembley in the Championship playoffs. On that occasion Norwich City, who ended the season above fellow finalists Middlesbrough, secured promotion.

Several of the league’s best players will be on show, with five of the EFL’s Championship Team of the Season being made up of Villa and Fulham men – John Terry and Albert Adomah were in it for Steve Bruce’s side, while the Whites had Ryan Fredericks, Ryan Sessegnon and Tom Cairney make the cut.

What’s more Villa have the league’s second highest scorer in Lewis Grabban, who has 20 goals in the Championship this season, although he spent the first half of the campaign on loan at Sunderland.

Fulham’s striker Aleksandar Mitrović, meanwhile, has been on fire since arriving on loan from Newcastle United in January and has 12 league goals.

Both sides will undoubtedly be confident of winning and have the skills to scare the opposition, but neither are the perfect team. If they were, they’d have finished in the top two. Both sides have chinks in their armour that can be taken advantage of.

They are two contrasting teams. Aston Villa are far more direct than their opponents, whereas Fulham are more considered in their build-up play.

You can see that in the teams’ personas below. The Whites lean towards high possession while the Villains tend to favour long balls.

The clash of styles should produce a fascinating battle, but the game could boil down to each side’s wingers as they try to make the most of the other team’s weaknesses.

Fulham are an attacking side. Over the standard 46-game season, only champions Wolverhampton Wanderers scored more than Slaviša Jokanović’s men’s 79 goals.

But their offensive nature can leave them open at the back – they let in 46 goals in the regular Championship season, the highest of the teams that finished in the top five.

Villa will want to take advantage of that defensive frailty. One way of doing so could be by targeting the space behind the full-backs as they push upfield.

Fulham getting their two full-backs – likely to be Fredericks and Matt Targett – into dangerous attacking areas is crucial to their game, and the two always provide offensive outlets.

While they are both quick, Fredericks especially, that means they leave gaps and  often leave centre-backs Denis Odoi and Tim Ream isolated.

Villa’s rivals Birmingham City took full advantage of that to pull off a shock upset and end Fulham’s 23-match unbeaten run on the final match of the regular league season.

In the three stills above, the Fulham left-back (here Sessegnon, as Targett was injured) is caught up field after an attack, leaving Ream and Odoi (circled in red) isolated.

Birmingham push into the space and drag Ream out wide. Even with Sessegnon (circled in yellow) coming back into the picture, they get the ball across for Lukas Jutkiewicz to score.

And on the other side, for Birmingham’s third, Cyrus Christie – who had come on for Fredericks – is nowhere to be seen as Che Adams runs at an isolated Odoi and Ream before getting a shot away from an acute angle.

Bruce will no doubt identify this as a key weakness for Fulham, and will look at getting Robert Snodgrass free out wide to create danger – no-one has more assists in the Championship than the 30-year-old’s 14 this season.

If the Whites push forward and leave him in space, they could be in real trouble.

Yet while Snodgrass may be the man to make the difference for Villa, for Fulham, it could be whoever they choose to play on the right wing.

The problem is, that’s the one spot in their starting XI that isn’t a given. Sheyi Ojo, Lucas Piazon, Floyd Ayité and Neeskens Kebano have all played there during the season, but Aboubakar Kamara was the man given the nod on the right wing for the second leg of their play-off semi-final against Derby County.

They’ll need to choose who can best trouble Bruce’s men, with the left side of their defence being a weakness.

Norwich took advantage of that to score, as you can see in the stills above. The left-hand side, here made up of Neil Taylor and John Terry, fell asleep and they lost Dennis Srbeny, leaving him with a tap-in.

And above, again, you can see how Matt Doherty of Wolves goes past Taylor before playing a ball behind Terry, who should be deeper to cut it out, but gets caught out of position running back – something the former Chelsea captain wouldn’t have done in the past. That pass across the box leads to Diogo Jota scoring.

The two have been guilty of not being at the level you would expect from former Premier League regulars, and it was no surprise to see Bruce change things up for the play-offs, with Alan Hutton coming in at left-back to quash Middlesbrough’s biggest threat, Adama Traoré.

The problem for Villa when they face Fulham is, however, that arguably the Whites’ biggest threat is Sessegnon, who plays on the left, meaning Hutton is likely to return to his preferred side to do a job on the teenager like he did on Traoré.

And should Taylor return to left-back, whoever plays right-wing for Fulham will have to try and make the most of it. With Terry never blessed with pace and Taylor not the quickest in the league, Jokanović may once again opt for Kamara, who has the speed to get away from slow defenders.

The Whites will only hope his end product – which can be erratic – is spot on.

Both teams will hope their wide men can find space and with Wembley’s big pitch it could very well be the area where the game is won or lost.

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