Ninety minutes separate four Championship clubs from a playoff final at Wembley Stadium to battle for promotion to the Premier League and all the riches that come along with it. Here you’ll find everything you need to know as Aston Villa seek to finish the job of knocking out West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns, and Leeds United attempt to hold on to the narrowest of first-leg leads over Derby County as they meet at what will surely be a raucous Elland Road.
FIRST-LEG SCORE: Derby 0-1 Leeds United
WHEN: Wednesday, 2:45 p.m. ET (ESPN+), 7:45 p.m. BT
WHAT WE LEARNED FROM THE FIRST LEG: Even though Leeds finished the regular season in horrible form, in the first leg at Pride Park they displayed why they’d challenged for automatic promotion for most of the campaign. They attacked Derby with a verve that had been missing from their play in recent weeks, and scored a brilliant goal: Manchester City loanee Jack Harrison producing a sensational deep cross to set up Kemar Roofe.
We were also reminded of the enmity between the two sides that has existed since “Spygate,” when Marcelo Bielsa sent a member of staff to covertly observe a Derby training session in January, for which Leeds were fined £200,000. Hefty tackles flew in throughout the game, and Derby’s Tom Huddlestone was lucky to get away with a forearm smash on Stuart Dallas, while Frank Lampard was furious that a penalty initially awarded to his side by the referee was overturned after consultation with the linesman.
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM THE RETURN LEG: Derby showed earlier in the season that they have pretty decent powers of recovery, bouncing back from a blip in form that threatened their playoff place and winning games that really mattered toward the back end of the season. Derby have to attack, being behind in the tie, and Leeds know no other way of playing, so in theory this should be a thriller.
WHAT LEEDS HAVE TO DO TO REACH THE FINAL: There’s no point in Leeds trying to protect their lead, and really there’s no chance of them trying to, either. Ashley Cole is an injury doubt, so if he isn’t fit in time and Scott Malone plays, then Leeds could identify him as an area of weakness at left-back and direct a lot of their attacks down that side.
WHAT DERBY HAVE TO DO TO REACH THE FINAL: Gain more control in midfield. One of their flaws this season is that they have looked far too easy to play against on occasion, and this was shown Saturday; as good as Leeds were, they were able to play through Derby at will. It will be interesting to see if Lampard opts to play Huddlestone, a more defensive and experienced option in midfield, and switch to a slightly more solid formation.
BATTLE TO WATCH: Harry Wilson vs. Stuart Dallas. One of the remarkable things about the success of Leeds is that they’ve managed much of it without a recognised left-back. Ezgjan Alioski, a winger by trade, filled in there since the turn of the year, but after he got injured against Brentford a few weeks ago, Dallas, another winger, has replaced him. In Wilson, Derby have one of the best wingers in the division, and while his inclination is to cut in from the right, he could give Dallas a torrid evening down the flank.
STORYBOOK SCENARIO: Mason Bennett is unlikely to start, but with Derby having problems up front (first-choice centre-forward Martyn Waghorn is struggling with an Achilles injury and replacement David Nugent has, incredibly, not scored since September), he could have an impact from the bench. A homegrown player and a Derby fan, Bennett made his debut for the club at age 15; it would be a remarkable story if he came off the bench with a decisive contribution.
FINAL PREDICTION: This is incredibly tough to call, but Leeds will probably just edge it, maybe in extra time: 2-2 on the night after Derby win 2-1 in normal time, meaning they go through 3-2 on aggregate. Remember, away goals aren’t a factor in the playoffs.
FIRST-LEG SCORE: Aston Villa 2-1 West Brom
WHEN: Tuesday, 3 p.m. ET (ESPN+), 8 p.m. BT
WHAT WE LEARNED FROM THE FIRST LEG: It would be a considerable understatement to say that West Brom came into the game with a plan to smother Villa as much as they could. The Baggies took the lead after capitalising on a mistake, then defended stoutly and kept Villa at bay and frustrated until the 75th minute. They paid particular attention to Villa captain and key creator Jack Grealish, three or four defenders pouncing on him whenever he got the ball, but ironically that led to Villa’s eventual breakthrough. So many defenders were drawn to Grealish that when he passed to Conor Hourihane, the Irishman was in so much space he could take his time and pick his spot in the corner of the net.
West Brom will have to get creative up front. Dwight Gayle will be suspended after a pair of bookings saw him sent off at Villa Park, and because he was suspended earlier in the season for a dive against Nottingham Forest, an extra game was added to his ban, meaning he’ll also miss the final if they get through.
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM THE RETURN LEG: A much different story from the initial game; that was a game of attack vs. defence, but this will be attack vs. attack. Both managers said after the game Saturday that they will have to be positive, West Brom because they have to overturn the deficit and Villa because their boss, Dean Smith, warned against the dangers of sitting on a lead. These are two extremely accomplished teams going hell for leather to get through, meaning it should be a chaotic classic.
WHAT WEST BROM HAVE TO DO TO REACH THE FINAL: Figure out how to cope without Gayle. With him and Hal Robson-Kanu both suspended, Jay Rodriguez will almost certainly have to play through the middle. He has been superb this season, scoring 22 goals, but most of his best work has come from either out wide or partnering with a more specialised striker. He’ll need plenty of support.
WHAT VILLA HAVE TO DO TO REACH THE FINAL: Blow West Brom away. Smith was exactly right when he said that trying to defend and protect a one-goal advantage is asking for trouble in these games, so Villa should run headlong in the other direction and try to kill off the tie in the early stages. They know that West Brom will have to attack, too, which will inevitably leave chances to exploit in their back line.
BATTLE TO WATCH: Jack Grealish vs. the whole West Brom midfield. For spells of the first leg, Grealish looked like he thought it was all on him, that he had to win the tie on his own. To a point that’s understandable, but with a little of the pressure off, this being an away game with Villa already in the lead, Grealish could tear West Brom apart. The Baggies won’t be able to double-, triple- or quadruple-mark him as they did in the first leg, meaning players in their midfield such as Chris Brunt and Stefan Johansen must be much smarter about how they combat Villa’s biggest threat.
STORYBOOK SCENARIO: West Brom youngster Rekeem Harper was left out of the squad altogether for the first leg. He is out of contract in the summer, with Premier League teams interested, so you naturally wonder if that was a factor, but caretaker manager Jimmy Shan explained it was simply a consequence of their defensive approach. That won’t be a factor in this game, so perhaps the hugely talented and more attack-minded Harper will feature.
FINAL PREDICTION: 3-1 to Villa on the night, 5-2 on aggregate. They have too many options in attack not to score, and since West Brom have to go for the win, they could leave themselves open to a pummelling.