The fight to win the richest match in the world is full of juicy subplots, adding even more fuel than usual to the promotion playoff fire.
The playoffs for the second-tier, England Football League Championship begin this weekend as Leeds United, West Brom, Aston Villa and Derby County battle for the final spot for promotion to the Premier League.
After gaining automatic promotion by finishing first and second, respectively, Norwich City and Sheffield United have already claimed places in the richest league in the world next season, but the final berth is decided by a four-team knockout tournament between clubs that ended third through sixth.
Given what’s at stake from both an emotional and financial standpoint, these fixtures are typically dramatic rollercoasters, but this year, thanks to the quality in talent and tactical diversity, the playoffs should also feature a higher level of quality.
Promotion means a giant payday for these teams thanks to the millions in shared television rights revenue, which could make it worth over $200 million to the victor. That’s why, from a financial perspective, the Championship playoff final is regarded as the richest match in the world.
Here's a closer look at the two semifinal pairings, which are full with juicy subplots:
Leeds United vs. Derby County
(at Derby County on May 11, at Leeds United on May 15)
At the beginning of the season, it seemed that Marcelo Bielsa’s side was destined for automatic promotion, but given the legendary manager’s physically demanding, high-press philosophy, two things happened. The players began to show fatigue, and opponents started to figure out how to counter Leeds’ offensive strengths, which at times, even if they are creatively impressive–are also somewhat simplistic. As a result, the side lost three of its final four matches and conceded second place to Sheffield United, which hit form at the right time.
Now comes a date with Frank Lampard’s Derby County, which probably hasn’t forgotten January’s “spygate” scandal in which Bielsa instructed a member of his staff to infiltrate a Derby training session. Leeds was fined £200,000 as a result of breaking EFL’s code of conduct, which Bielsa paid. Both managers, however, feel it's time to put the story in the past and focus on the task at hand.
For Derby, which squeezed into the playoff picture thanks to a late run and a victory over West Brom on the last day of the regular season, this is less about spygate and more about finally winning in the playoffs. If the club fails to earn promotion, it will mark the fourth time in six seasons that it's come close only to fall at the playoff hurdle, so Lampard is looking to rewrite the script. Thanks to loanees such as Harry Wilson, Mason Mount (30 goals between them), and the impressive Fikayo Tomori (a 21-year-old center back from Chelsea) and American midfielder Duane Holmes, this is a team that can hurt Leeds from all areas.
Bielsa’s side should find a new sense of energy for this fixture, and talented players such as the experienced Pablo Hernandez (team-high 12 assists) and forward Kemar Roofe (team-high 14 goals) should feel rejuvenated and pose an intriguing matchup. But there’s more to Bielsa’s system than two players, as the most valuable part of the manager’s philosophy is collective production. Four players have scored at least 10 goals and 15 have netted at least one goal this season. Almost always the strongest attacks come from wide areas, so Derby needs to narrow the field of play if it wants to keep a clean sheet.
Aside from the Bielsa vs. Lampard narrative, there is also a reunion between two New York City FC players. Leeds attacker and Man City loanee Jack Harrison–now a key starter for Bielsa–faces his former NYCFC teammate. Lampard shared a close relationship with the 22-year-old during their MLS days, and the former Chelsea midfielder became somewhat of a mentor, but all those memories will be put on hold for this two-legged semifinal, as a crucial trip to Wembley is at stake.
West Brom vs. Aston Villa
(at Aston Villa on May 11, at West Brom on May 14)
Seeing as this semifinal is also a West Midlands derby, the stakes and bragging rights require no amplification, and neither side will need added motivation for these two legs.
It’s been an interesting season for West Brom: After being relegated from the Premier League last season, West Brom stuck with club favorite Darren Moore after firing Alan Pardew, and at first it seemed all was rosy in the Championship, as the Baggies consistently battled for a playoff spot throughout the season. In fact, the club’s 2-0 away win over Aston Villa back in February kept West Brom in fourth and within six points from first place, so when Moore was fired three weeks later, it perplexed many fans. In came first team coach James Shan as interim manager, and the good news is that thanks to six wins from 10 matches, the club didn’t lose its playoff spot and booked a ticket for the postseason. In terms of offensive firepower, Shan will rely on top scorers Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez (who have combined for 45 goals this season) to terrorize Villa’s back four, while captain Chris Brunt’s biggest job will be to nullify Dean Smith’s creative midfield.
Villa, meanwhile, has peaked at the right time, as it recently made history by winning 10 consecutive matches. It took time for the squad to learn Smith’s quick-possession-based system, but thanks to players such as the hard-working John McGinn, Anwar El Ghazi and Tammy Abraham (25 goals this season), chances are plentiful. At the back, meanwhile, Tyrone Mings (on loan from Bournemouth) has become a fan favorite, as his passion, work ethic and leadership qualities have been a welcome addition. Ultimately, the spotlight shines brightest on 23-year-old captain Jack Grealish, and the attacker’s desire to help his boyhood club make amends for last season’s playoff final loss and earn a spot in the top flight. If Villa fails to do so this time around, it would seem unlikely the club will be able to keep him for one more year. West Brom, however, is more than prepared and eager to spoil the party.