After a thrilling week that included a dramatic penalty shootout, four red cards and 11 goals from both semifinal two-legged fixtures, the Championship’s playoff final is set. Two of the oldest teams in English football will join Norwich City and Sheffield United for a place in next season’s Premier League.
Aston Villa–returning to the promotion final for a second straight year–faces Derby County, which is hoping to finally return to the top flight after being relegated after the 2007-2008 season.
For the fifth- and sixth-placed teams, reaching the final was anything but easy. Villa fought hard in a West Midlands derby against a physical, resilient West Brom side, but thanks to a well-rounded squad and performances of third-choice-goalkeeper-turned-hero Jed Steer, Villa came out victorious in a penalty shootout at the Hawthorns.
Derby, meanwhile, faced the aggressive Leeds United and its eccentric manager, Marcelo Bielsa. After losing 1-0 at home in the first leg, the Rams were against it once again at Elland Road, trailing 2-0 on aggregate in the early stages of the second leg. All seemed lost until substitute Jack Marriott immediately caused havoc and scored a double, helping his side to a memorable 4-3 victory.
Given the fact that both victors possess an attacking mindset and enjoy going forward, fans should anticipate an open game on May 27. Thanks to the quality of their respective rosters and coaching personnel, it should be a final full of technical depth. And for that, much of the gratitude should probably go to Chelsea Football Club, as the Premier League side has its fingerprints all over the showdown at Wembley Stadium.
To begin, there’s the obvious. Derby County manager Frank Lampard and Aston Villa assistant coach John Terry are close friends with loads of history together from their time at Stamford Bridge, and they'll be standing on opposing sidelines.
Lampard arrived at Chelsea from West Ham in the summer of 2001 and went on to become the club’s all-time leading scorer with 211 goals in all competitions. He is also the Premier League’s highest-scoring midfielder. Terry, meanwhile, is Chelsea’s most successful captain, the league’s highest-scoring defender and ended his career as one of five players with more than 500 appearances at the club.
Both won three Premier League titles, two League Cups, four FA Cups, the Europa League and the 2011-12 Champions League. Together, they combine for 1,365 total appearances for the club.
But the Chelsea connection does not end there. Lampard and Terry's former teammate, Ashley Cole will also be at Wembley, as the 38-year-old English fullback joined Derby from the LA Galaxy back in January. Cole, who was at Chelsea for almost a decade, also won the Champions League, Europa League and other titles with Lampard and Terry. He is usually utilized as a substitute for the Rams, but he might need to play a bigger role on May 27 as first-choice left back Scott Malone received a red card in the second leg against Leeds, ruling him out of the final.
But for Chelsea, Cole’s participation in this game won’t be as pertinent or meaningful as that of its talented youngsters. The club's small army of loaned-out talent features prominently at Derby and Villa, with three select individuals potentially having plenty to say by the final whistle.
Tammy Abraham, the imposing center forward who joined Chelsea's academy when he was 7, leads Aston Villa’s attack. After loan spells with Bristol City and Swansea, the 21-year-old striker has reached new heights with Villa, finishing second in the league with 25 goals in the regular season. His presence and maturity are impressive, and there’s no doubt he will look to use this final as another opportunity to show what he can do on a big stage.
Derby, meanwhile, has two Chelsea loanees in its squad who make up a key part of the team’s spine. Mason Mount, the composed, creative midfielder, was fantastic against Leeds and scored an equalizer as part of the comeback. In the back, 21-year-old Fikayo Tomori has earned a tremendous amount of responsibility in his role as a center back. Just like Abraham, Tomori has slowly collected experience through his loan spells at Brighton, Hull City and now Derby.
All three players have also represented England at the youth level, and thanks to the demands of a long Championship season, they have been able to develop both mentally and physically.
While Chelsea can take a certain amount of pride in seeing how the Championship playoff final is influenced by its legends and its academy, the club is most likely anxious for the active players to return to its Cobham training center this summer and rejoin the senior squad.
Thanks to a two-window transfer ban due to breaches relating to the purchase and registration of multiple youth players, Maurizio Sarri’s squad will be quiet in the transfer window–appeals pending–with the only arrival being Christian Pulisic from Borussia Dortmund following his winter purchase and subsequent loan back to the Bundesliga title contender. With Eden Hazard expected to move to Real Madrid, Chelsea, now more than ever, needs all the help it can get, and they may wind up being in the form of recalling its farmed-out talent. The Blues surely will be eager for their young players to deliver–both during and beyond this final.