London: We are three matches away from knowing which side will take the place in the Premier League next season — joining Norwich City and Sheffield United in what is widely regarded as the richest promotion in world football.
Here is all you need to know as Leeds United face off against Derby County, while West Bromwich Albion take on Aston Villa in the Championship play-off semi-final first legs.
Leeds v Derby
Away from all of the talk of peering over fences and peeking through bushes, at least 180 minutes of on-field entertainment will separate these bickering teams. Marcelo Bielsa’s side need to stop the rot, and fast, having warmed up for the tail end of the season by losing to the worst team in the division. As for Derby, they should take confidence from their recent run of four wins in six matches. History suggests Leeds, despite flagging, have the best chance of being promoted. Since 1992, the inception of the play-off system in its current four-team format involving the teams between third and sixth, the third-placed team have the most favourable record. In those 27 seasons, that team have won promotion on 10 occasions (37 per cent), compared with fourth four times (15 per cent), fifth eight times (30 per cent), and sixth five times (18 per cent). In the past 10 seasons, the third-placed side have won promotion on five occasions. The worrying thing, as Bielsa said, is that his squad will struggle to “reproduce the same level of performance” again next season.
West Brom v Aston Villa
Aston Villa’s last game was their most meaningless of the season. The next two are anything but. Having sewn up fifth place, Dean Smith rested five players in a narrow defeat by Norwich, including Jack Grealish, John McGinn and Tyrone Mings. They surrendered their 12-match unbeaten run — they won 10 in a row — but have preserved some priceless energy for consecutive West Midlands derbies. Mings has been magnificent since arriving on loan from Bournemouth and McGinn has proved a ubiquitous presence in midfield. For Grealish, 23, will this be his last crack at hoisting Villa, his club since the age of six, back into the big time? “For me personally, I think this is the year we’ve got to get promoted, really,” he said. “I feel like this is going to be our year.” Since being handed the captaincy by Smith in November, Grealish has tasted defeat only twice in the 19 matches he has played. Daring, direct and peerless in possession, Grealish is a class act. If West Brom are to prevent Villa from going one better than last year, when they lost to Fulham in the play-off final, then stopping Grealish will be a necessity.
Aston Villa v West Brom, 3.30pm
Derby County v Leeds United, 8.15pm