By Kris Woodward
Despite Aston Villa’s 12 game unbeaten run coming to end, after resting players against champions Norwich City, Villa supporters would have left Villa Park with a sense of optimism, knowing their next visit could be to witness a pivotal event in the club’s history.
The final day of the season also saw the fourth and final play-off place claimed by Derby County. Despite their recent form, this will please Villans who have seen Villa take six points against the Rams this season with an aggregate score of 7-0.
Going into the play-offs Villa will need to finish top of the pile against Leeds United, West Bromwich Albion and Derby County.
Here’s how all the teams stack up…
3rd– W: 25 D: 8 L: 13 GD: 23 – Points: 83
Top at Christmas by three points and heavily backed to go up automatically, it’s been Leeds form in the second half of the season that have let them down badly. In the last ten seasons, the team that has been at top at Christmas have won automatic promotion (seven of them winning the title).
Leeds form going into the play-offs is patchy at best. In their last ten games they have won four, drawn one (against Villa) and lost five, including a final day defeat to bottom club Ipswich Town.
United will fancy their chances against Derby though, this season they have beaten them both home and away, a 4-1 win at Pride Park and 2-0 win at Elland Road.
The game against Ipswich did welcome back top scorer Kemar Roofe who has netted 14 times this season. It’s not a moment too soon with Bamford serving his two match ban for his antics against Villa.
Leeds have at times this season blown teams off the field, including a 3-0 win against the champions Norwich City and a 4-0 win against West Brom. However, a lot has been made of the intensity of which Bielsa demands his players to play. There were rumours and fears early on in the season that Bielsa teams have been known to implode during the second half of the season and many may argue that is what’s happened.
Bielsa is undoubtedly a very thorough manager and is someone who looks at all the tactics and fine details of every opponent, even if that means doing so from a bush outside the training ground. However, he now has to pick his players up and motivate them after a gruelling season and a hard fought race for second, which they inevitably lost to Sheffield United.
Should they get past Derby County, a Villa vs Leeds final is a mouth watering prospect and a fixture the media would no doubt lap up.Embed from Getty Images
6th – W: 20 D: 14 L: 12 GD: 15 – Points: 74
Leaving it late, Derby claimed the last play-off place with a convincing 3-1 win at home to West Bromwich Albion. Whilst Aston Villa have looked like the inform team heading into the play-offs, Derby could also make a case.
Derby have only been beaten once in the 12 games since Villa’s 4-0 victory at Villa Park. In this run however they have accumulated six wins and five draws. Thus less impressive than the 10-win streak from Villa.
Lampard will be proud of his first season in charge at Derby, guiding them to the play-offs and warding off threats from experienced managers like Steve Bruce, Tony Pulis and Martin O’Neill.
Despite having capable forwards at this level in the likes of Martyn Waghorn, David Nugent and Tom Lawrence, it’s on-loan midfielder Harry Wilson from Liverpool, who claims top scorer this season with 15 goals.
Derby will need their young guns firing on all cylinders if they want to stand a chance of beating Leeds over the two legs.
Whilst Derby will be considered the underdogs against Leeds, their form is a lot better, something Lampard will remind his players before Saturday’s game, despite losing both games against Leeds this season.
After their win against West Brom, Derby will no doubt be hoping to avoid Villa should they get through to Wembley.
West Bromwich Albion
5th– W: 23 D: 11 L: 12 GD: 25 – Points: 80
West Brom are the only other team in the top six to change their manager midway through the season. In a somewhat strange decision, Darren Moore was sacked at the beginning of March, despite Albion sitting in 4thand with an outside chance of the automatics.
Despite an opening day defeat to Bolton Wanderers, Albion started the season well winning 7 of their opening 12 games, which included impressive wins against champions Norwich as well as thumping QPR 7-1.
This has proved a common theme this season with West Brom, the second highest scorers in the league this season (87). Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez have been stand out performers this season racking up 45 goals between them.
West Brom’s Achilles heal this season, you could argue, has been their defence. Albion have conceded 62 goals this season, one more than Aston Villa.
At first glance, this seems as though Villa and West Brom are both weak defensively, however Villa’s defensive issues has been a tale of two halves. Villa have played half the season with two senior centre backs, of which one played through injury. West Brom don’t have this excuse and have still managed to concede more than Villa, something Smith will hope to exploit over the two legs.
Head-to-head, West Brom are unbeaten against Villa this season. At the Hawthorns, West Brom grabbed a controversial 2-2 draw through a last-gasp Jay Rodriguez handball. The second fixture however was more straightforward with Albion running out comfortable winners, 2-0.
Their form heading into the play-offs is less impressive. In their final 10 games, West Brom have only played against a top half table once, their final day defeat to Derby. In this stretch of games they have they have won 6, drawn 1 and lost 3.Embed from Getty Images
6th– W: 20 D: 16 L: 10 : GD 21 – Points 76
Aston Villa started the season unbeaten in five however this included disappointing draws against Ipswich and Reading. Villa’s nativity in the summer transfer window meant they went into the season with just two senior centre backs, including on-loan Axel Tuanzebe (who had actually played as a right-back the season before).
This mismanagement, and a cabbage, eventually lead to Bruce being sacked and replaced by boyhood Villan Dean Smith.
Despite a turbulent start the move ultimately paid off come the end of the regular season, with Villa finishing the season 5th, securing a play-off place that had seemed long gone. Smith has also led Villa to a run of 10-wins in a row, breaking a record that stood for over 100 years.
As previously mentioned, Villa have the third least losses in the league this year. Once again it has been drawing games that has really let Villa down.
Villa limped through the first half of their season, with sporadic form and an injury hit defence. The acquisitions in January and the return of Jack Grealish have really saved the season for Villa. Tyrone Mings and Kortney Hause proved to be excellent additions with Mings claiming a first team spot over above any other. His leadership and passion made him an instant favourite amongst the fans and plugged a leaky defence.
Jack seems to have been the spark that got Villa going though. In the 12 games since his return Villa have only lost once (2-1 Norwich, which he didn’t play in). Despite being only 23, Smith entrusted him with the captaincy, which he has made his own.
Villa’s strength this season has been the ability to score goals and end the campaign as the third highest scorers in the league behind West Brom and Norwich. The biggest contributor for this has been on-loan striker Tammy Abraham scoring 25 goals in his 37 appearances. Abraham is the first Villa striker since Andy Gray in 1977, to score 25 league goals. Fans will be hoping he can add to that tally over the next 3 games.
Perhaps the biggest test for Aston Villa will be being many people’s favourites to win the play-offs. Despite Leeds and West Brom finishing higher than Villa, pundits and media have hyped Villa’s chances due to their form. You could argue Villa haven’t been favourites for anything since their first season in the championship.
Smith will need to ensure Villa have the right attitude going into the play-offs as they yet to beat either Leeds or West Brom this season and complency has cost them dearly during their stint in the Championship.
However, for the first time Smith has a fully fit squad, who have shown that when they are up for it, are a force to be reckoned with.