Today’s match against Derby County is important because Aston Villa still have an automatic promotion shot, right? Ostensibly, this is the biggest reason we should care about Villa’s result today — the only way the club can get to second involves a win over the Rams.
Of course, the only way the club can get to second involves the following three things happening:
- 18th-placed Hull City getting a result against Cardiff City
- 19th-placed Reading getting an away result against Cardiff City
- 20th-placed Birmingham City doing Villa a favour and beating Fulham, who literally haven’t lost in the league this year
To freeze Villa out from contention for even third-place, all Cardiff need to do is win one of their final two matches and all Fulham have to do is not lose to Blues. Seems likely that those things both happen. Which means that irrespective of outcome today, Villa will probably finish the Championship season fourth as they head for the play-offs, which in some sense should make today’s match a little meaningless.
Yet there is something that absolutely does make Villa’s match today incredibly consequential: the opponent. Sixth-placed Derby are locked in a fierce battle for the final two play-off spots, and with a trip to seventh-placed Millwall scheduled for the final day, Villa will play a pretty significant role in who they play. Hell, they might even get to help pick their opponent.
Tomorrow’s biggest Championship fixture, no matter how you slice it, is Middlesbrough v Millwall. Here’s a slice of the table:
5. Middlesbrough (72 points, +20)
6. Derby (71, +19)
7. Millwall (69, +12)
8. Brentford (68, +12)
If Middlesbrough beat Millwall and Villa beat Derby, Boro will not only lock up a spot in the play-offs, they’ll lock up fifth place and, barring something silly happening at the top end of the table, a semi-final match-up with Villa.
If I’m being honest, I really, really don’t want Boro, and it boils down to one simple fact: their manager. Tony Pulis is a one-man trolling machine, and if you’ve watched English football over the last decade or so, you’ve seen it first-hand. Pulis’ sides are really, really good at nicking goals from set pieces, and this Boro team is no different — defender Dani Ayala is their leading scorer in 2018 with seven goals, all from dead-ball situations. Play-off ties are often scrappy affairs, where the team that can nick a goal at the right time can grind out a result, and that’s why Boro scare me.
It’s funny, too, because the other leading candidates — Derby, Millwall and Brentford — have all given Villa fits this season where Boro really haven’t. But there’s just something about the prospect of playing Pulis that I really, really don’t like, because I’d hate to see such a fun season end on a completely troll, 80th-minute second-leg winner from a long throw-in that’s the only goal of the tie.
Realistically, if Boro beat Millwall, they’re likely the opponent; their final match of the season is Ipswich Town away, and after what we watched last weekend, I wouldn’t put much faith in the Tractor Boys to keep Boro from securing fifth. Yet if Millwall look like they’re getting a result, perhaps a loss — letting Derby pass Boro in the table heading into the final day — wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Sure, it would end Villa’s hopes of finishing second, but those might be done in anyway with a Cardiff win, and I’d much rather avoid Boro in my semi-final.
Yet Villa’s impact doesn’t end with who they play — their results could help saddle a promotion rival with a tougher semi-final opponent. If Fulham finish third, I think I speak for most Villa fans in noting that I’d really, really like to avoid the Cottagers if Villa get to the final. The best way for Villa to do that might be through getting two more wins to close the season, thus harming Derby and Millwall’s sixth-place chances while boosting Brentford’s.
Why? Brentford have presented a bit of a matchup nightmare for Fulham this season, winning 3-1 at Griffin Park in early December, then drawing 1-1 two weeks ago at Craven Cottage. Perhaps it’s the alignment in styles that gives Fulham some trouble, but if the Cottagers are going to lose in a playoff semi-final, I think it’s most likely to happen with Brentford involved.
On the flip side, if it’s Cardiff who finish third, the Bluebirds have done quite fine with Brentford, recording a pair of two-goal wins against them this season. They’ve struggled, however, with the other contending sides, especially Derby, who drew 0-0 with them away and 3-1 at home. And no matter whether it’s Cardiff or Fulham in third, finding a way to help get Boro to sixth, and give Pulis a shot to knock off the favourites before Villa would run into them, could be a big positive.
Right now, there’s no dominant strategy, because it depends so much on other results around the league — but there’s no doubting that no matter what happens, Villa will have had a significant impact on the make-up of the top-six.