Aston Villa edged out Derby County in a thrilling playoff final, as goals from Anwar El Ghazi and John McGinn were enough to book their return to the Premier League, despite a late Jack Marriott-inspired revival.
As expected in a game with almost £200m and a place in the Premier League at stake, neither side was prepared to throw caution to the wind early on. Derby seemed prepared to relinquish possession and hit Villa on the break, relying on the pace of Tom Lawrence and Harry Wilson down the flanks, while Dean Smith's men saw a lot of the ball, but struggled to find Tammy Abraham with enough frequency to carry a consistent threat.
It took until two minutes before half-time before the first clear opportunity came, but when it did, Villa took full advantage. Ahmed Elmohamady found some space down the Derby left, whipping in a dangerous cross between Richard Keogh and Jayden Bogle, and El Ghazi was on hand to find the corner with a diving header.
From there, Villa had a stranglehold on the game, and never really looked like letting go. They managed the second half well, and found their advantage doubled when Kelle Roos made a meal of collecting a routine ball in from El Ghazi, allowing John McGinn to head his side into a seemingly comfortable lead.
Derby had a fair crack at reviving their hopes of Wembley glory, and they certainly made a game of it, with Marriott capitalising on some haphazard defending to give his side hope, and while seven minutes of stoppage time inspired some further kitchen-sink throwing from the Rams, Villa were able to see it out.
Key Talking Point
Smith set his side up in the same way he has for much of his time in charge of Villa, with a 4-3-3 formation centred around target-man Abraham. 20-year-old Andre Green made way for the more experienced Albert Adomah as Villa looked to return to the Premier League at the second time of asking.
The first half, in many ways, encompassed the story of their season so far; they were solid, comfortable, and unspectacular. Aside from an Abraham half-chance, which he was forced to craft himself due to the limited service into his feet, El Ghazi's opening goal was the only real opportunity they created in the first 45.
Performances don't matter in occasions such as these, however, as long as you get the desired result - and that's exactly what Villa did. They forced a fortuitous second goal, and dug deep to see the remainder of the game out, and return to the Premier League.
Starting XI: Steer (6); Elmohamady* (7), Tuanzebe (6), Mings (7), Taylor (6); McGinn (7), Hourihane (6), Grealish (6); Adomah (6), Abraham (5), El-Ghazi (7)
Subs: Green (6), Hause (4)
In a game high on competitive spirit but low on match-winning quality, Ahmed Elmohamady had both when it mattered. Though out of position on the right of a back four, he covered virtually every blade of grass down the right hand side of the pitch, while silencing the usually dangerous Tom Lawrence, and was on hand to whip in a delicious ball to give Villa the opener in a tight first half.
Villa break. Lovely pass from Hourihane to set Adomah away. He plays the ball back to Elmohamady who delivers a first time cross which El Ghazi converts with a diving header.— matt maher (@mjmarr_star) May 27, 2019
The 31-year-old might not make the Villa starting 11 upon their return to the Premier League, but whatever his role in the squad next season, he can take his fair share of the credit for getting them back there.
Key Talking Point
Having dramatically edged past Leeds in the semi-finals, it was a match which would define Frank Lampard's first season in management no matter what the outcome. With a two week break under his side's belt, he opted for ten of the same 11 who emerged victorious at Elland Road, with 38-year-old Ashley Cole coming in for the suspended Scott Malone.
As optimistic as the Derby camp was going in, however, they looked short of the quality required to see off their more street-wise opponents throughout. At times, they showed a naivety which belies their youthful exuberance, as both Bogle and Tomori - at 18 and 21 respectively - can take their share of fault for the opening goal. The latter charged out of position to close down the cross, while the former failed to get goal side as the ball came in, leaving El Ghazi with a fairly easy task.
Derby look terrible. Offering nothing in attack.— 𝗟𝗨𝗠𝗠𝗬 (@LUMMYTHEBRUMMIE) May 27, 2019
Tomori at fault for Villa's goal, IMO.
It didn't get much better for them in the second half either. Another failure to defend a cross - this time from keeper Roos - resulted in the second Villa goal, and left Lampard's side with too much to do, despite a late flurry led by substitute Marriott.
They have plenty to be positive about going forward, with one of the most promising management teams in the country, but that will come as stark consolation after falling at the final hurdle.
Starting XI: Roos (4); Bogle (6), Keogh* (7), Tomori (5), Cole (5); Johnson (6), Huddlestone (6), Wilson (6), Mount (5), Lawrence (4); Bennett (6)
Subs: Marriott (7), Waghorn (6), Josefzoon (4)
Having played starring roles in the attacking third so far this season, the final was set to mark the arrival of the electric Harry Wilson and Mason Mount on the big stage. Each of their on-loan stars were stifled, however, and it was the reliable Richard Keogh who stood out in their stead.
Richard Keogh is genuinely one of our favourite players in the world.— Paddy Power (@paddypower) May 27, 2019
He always gives his all, and looks like someone still haunted by what he saw deep within the woods that night, and he won't talk about it - he shan't talk about it - but it was real and he knows what he saw. pic.twitter.com/AdHm9MsErG
Try as he might, he just can't seem to get Derby back to the Premier League. The 32-year-old didn't put a foot wrong defensively, combining with Tomori to keep the lethal Abraham quiet throughout, but errors elsewhere and a severe lack of attacking impetus cost his side dearly in another instance of playoff heartbreak.