By Kris Woodward
Two months and eleven games ago, the play-offs seemed like a tall order. Even the most optimistic of fans wouldn’t have seen what was to come.
However, a down turn in others fortune and a historic record of ten wins in a row have seen Aston Villa claim not only a play-off spot, but secure it with games to spare and a likely fifth spot, one position below last year’s fourth place finish.
Whilst Villa fans have probably never been happier since dropping to the Championship, some will only just be getting over the gut-wrenching heartache of last year’s play-off final. Now the realisation is about to hit, that we have to go through the play-off system one more time.
A history-making 10-game winning run or a long unbeaten run will mean very little if Villa come up short once again.
The Possible play-off opponents
Being six points clear of 6th position means it would take Villa losing their remaining game against Norwich heavily and then Derby going on to swing a nine goal difference by winning their remaining two games (Swansea City & West Bromwich Albion), to see Villa slip into 6th.
With a fifth place finish pretty much a done deal, while a two-legged clash with West Brom is the most likely play-off semi-final, if the Baggies win away against Derby and Leeds lose away at Ipswich, then it’ll be a two-leg affair against Leeds United. West Brom are currently three points behind Leeds, but have a superior goal difference.
With Leeds, West Brom and Villa all locked in for the play-offs, sixth place remains up for grabs, with Derby County currently in pole position.
Currently on 70 points with Derby, Middlesbrough will have to win their remaining game at the New York stadium on the last day to have a chance of the play-offs, and with Rotherham already down, that should be a formality.
For Derby to guarantee a sixth-place finish, they would need three points from their last two tricky games (and suffer no major swing of goal difference).
Bristol City still have an outside chance and would need to win their remaining two games to finish on 72 points, before other results going their way. Their recent loss at home to Derby has pretty much sealed their fate this season though.
Villa’s Likely Semi-final Opponents
Like Villa, West Brom’s success this season has come from their ability to score goals. Only Norwich (91) has scored more goals this season than either Villa (81) or West Brom (86). Both teams have conceded 59 goals.
Villa fans won’t take much confidence from their two games against Albion this season. The first coming at the Hawthorns whilst Villa were in a good run of form during Dean Smiths early tenure. Villa looked set to take all three points but for a blatant handball by Jay Rodriguez, to level out the score at 2-2. The second game saw West Brom claim all three points with a very comfortable 2-0 win at Villa Park.
West Brom’s form since that last meeting at Villa Park has been patchy. In 13 games they’ve won seven times scoring 22 goals, they’ve also conceded 20 goals.
If we’re to compare this to Villa’s form in the fixtures since, it makes for better reading.
In the 12 games since Villa played West Brom they are unbeaten, winning 10 and drawing 2. Villa have scored 25 goals and conceded only 7.
Whilst both teams have conceded the same amount of goals this season, the majority of Villa’s came in the first half of the season, before the likes of Mings and Hause had arrived.
Villa’s defence could be the difference when the two teams meet in the play-offs, especially if Villa hope to see Wembley for a second season in succession.
Villa also have to get over the fact they have failed to beat any of the current Championship top four teams in seven attempts.
Likely opponents in the finalEmbed from Getty Images
If Villa can overcome West Brom over two legs, currently most Villans would expect Leeds United to be the likely opponent in the play-off final at Wembley.
It’s not that clean cut though.
The Leeds’ camp will currently feel deflated after a slump in form has cost them an expected automatic promotion spot. Especially when you consider their previous four failed attempts in the play-offs.
Will this season buck the trend of previous play-off failure? The signs aren’t great in terms of recent form.
Leeds have failed to win in their last three games and are currently the lowest placed of the likely four play-off teams in terms of the form table (14thbased on the last six games).
Also, Leeds’ most likely opponents Derby have found decent enough form and have won three of their last four, plus will be keen to serve up some post ‘spygate’ justice to Leeds.
Still, as Villa have beaten Derby by a combined score of 7-0 over two games this season, Leeds have also doubled the Rams with ease, by an overall score of 6-1.
Results this season suggest that Leeds would perhaps struggle more against Middlesbrough, if Tony Pulis’s men made the play-offs, as Boro drew both encounters between the teams this season.
Ultimately, Villa will fancy their chances against any team at Wembley, although Leeds will no doubt present a harder proposition than either Derby or Boro.
Leeds on their day can obviously be a dynamic force and Villa would have to be at their best to beat them.
While Villa haven’t beaten Leeds this season in their two encounters, there is mitigation to be had.
At Villa Park, Villa only lost in injury-time despite not having Jack Grealish in the team and a back four that contained two players out of position, with James Bree at centre-back and Alan Hutton at left-back.
In the latest encounter at Elland Road that ended 1-1, Villa played the game without their main 25-goal striker Tammy Abraham.
As long as Tammy Abraham, Jack Grealish and John McGinn are all fit and Villa field a full-strength back four, then you’d fancy our chances.
Last year Villa lost out to the inform team of the league, Fulham. This year Villa are that team. Despite finishing a place below last year, fans will be more confident heading into this play-off challenge.
In MOMS book, perhaps the toughest play-off test will be a two-legged local derby against the Albion.
Get through that and surely Wembley can’t be as bad as our last visit.
Additional reporting: David Michael