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xV: Analyzing each Championship play-off contender’s run-in

We’re getting to the business end of the season, with only a month left in the campaign. How does Villa’s run-in compare to their promotion rivals’?

Bristol City v Aston Villa - Sky Bet Championship
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 28: Birkir Bjarnason (20) of Aston Villa scores during the Sky Bet Championship match between Bristol City and Aston Villa at Ashton Gate on September 28, 2018 in Bristol, England.
Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Welcome to Expected Villa (xV), a column that looks at the numbers behind Villa’s play. This week, we take a look at the promotion race and try to quantify the difficulty of each contender’s run-in.

Play-off Contenders’ Run-In

Matchday Bristol City (61) Aston Villa (60) Derby County (59) Middlesbrough (58) Nottingham Forest (57) Preston North End (57) Sheffield Wednesday (56)
Matchday Bristol City (61) Aston Villa (60) Derby County (59) Middlesbrough (58) Nottingham Forest (57) Preston North End (57) Sheffield Wednesday (56)
6 April Wigan (20th, H) Wednesday (11th, A) Brentford (13th, A) Swansea (14th, A) Rotherham (22nd, A) Sheff. Utd. (3rd, H) Aston Villa (6th, H)
9 April West Brom (4th, H) Rotherham (22nd, A) Blackburn (16th, A) Bolton (23rd, A) Wednesday (11th, A) Leeds (2nd, H) Forest (9th, H)
13 April Aston Villa (6th, A) Bristol City (5th, H) Bolton (23rd, H) Hull (12th, H) Blackburn (16th, H) West Brom (4th, A) Leeds (2nd, A)
19 April Reading (19th, H) Bolton (23rd, A) Birmingham (18th, A) Stoke (15th, H) Sheff. Utd. (3rd, A) Ipswich (24th, H) Norwich (1st, A)
22 April Wednesday (11th, A) Millwall (21st, H) QPR (17th, H) Forest (9th, A) Middlesbrough (8th, H) Wigan (20th, A) Bristol City (5th, H)
27 April Derby (7th, H) Leeds (2nd, A) Bristol City (5th, A) Reading (19th, H) QPR (17th, A) Wednesday (11th, H) Preston (10th, A)
30 April Millwall (21st, A) Swansea (14th, A)
5 May Hull (12th, A) Norwich (1st, H) West Brom (4th, H) Rotherham (22nd, A) Bolton (23rd, H) Brentford (13th, A) QPR (17th, H)

Bristol City

Sitting fifth and with a match in hand on all the other contenders (except Derby County), Bristol City seem to be in the driver’s seat for one of the two play-off spots — but the Robins have a run-in that’ll make them win key matches. Home fixtures with West Brom and Derby County will be key, while they have to head to Villa Park. It is worth remembering that the Robins will have a match in hand on everyone until the final week of the season, when they go to The Den on 30 April. Difficulty: Moderate

Aston Villa

Dean Smith’s Claret and Blues have two big fixtures looming at the end of the year, with Leeds and Norwich the last two outings of the year. It’s perhaps looking likely they’ll catch a break on the final day — Norwich could have the Championship won before they come to Villa Park — but either way, Villa would certainly do well to keep their foot on the gas pedal over the next few weeks. A home match with Bristol City is the fixture left, while this weekend’s trip to Sheffield Wednesday can put Steve Bruce’s men out of the race. Above all else, though, Villa need to avoid their mistake from last year — they need 9 points from matches with relegation fodder Rotherham United, Bolton Wanderers and Millwall. Difficulty: Moderate

Derby County

Frank Lampard’s Rams are in a great position. They hold a match in hand on sixth-placed Villa, and their run-in is very navigable, with 6 of their remaining 8 fixtures against bottom-half sides, including their next 5. A visit to Bristol City on 27 April is the big match on their calendar, while they’re likely to catch another break on the final matchday of the season, as West Brom will visit, likely locked into the 4th spot in the table. Like Bristol City, Derby won’t give up their match in hand until a 30 April trip to Swansea City. Difficulty: Easy

Middlesbrough

If Boro weren’t playing awful football, I’d think of them as a favourite for one of the two play-off spots. That’s because Tony Pulis’ men have the easiest run-in of all contenders — the only match they play against a fellow contender is their trip to Nottingham Forest on 22 April. Each of their other 6 matches is against a team sitting 12th (Hull City) or lower in the table. Difficulty: Very Easy

Nottingham Forest

Of the 7 matches old friend Martin O’Neill has left, 4 of them are against teams in the bottom 9 of the table. That doesn’t mean there aren’t tricky ones out there, though — he has to go to Hillsbrough mid-week, but back-to-back fixtures over the Easter weekend of Sheffield United (A) and Middlesbrough (H) will likely determine whether or not Forest have a chance heading into the final couple of weeks. Difficulty: Moderate

Preston North End

If Alex Neil’s men make the play-off, you tip your cap and move on. More likely, though, is a world where Preston are out of the race this time next week. Their next two fixtures are home matches against third-placed Sheffield United and second-placed Leeds United, before they head to fourth-placed West Brom next weekend. If they can survive that run and remain in the race, they’re in a good position — they don’t play a side better than 11th-placed Sheffield Wednesday in the last 4 — but that seems unlikely. Difficulty: Hard

Sheffield Wednesday

Steve Bruce’s Owls have an incredible opportunity to make up points in front of them, as 4 of their last 7 matches are with fellow contenders: Villa, Forest, Bristol City and Preston. Unfortunately for the ex-Villa manager, there’s a back-to-back run of matches with Leeds and Norwich in the middle of that stretch. A final-day visit from QPR is something to look forward to, but this is a brutal run-in for the Hillsbrough club. Difficulty: Extremely Hard

The Verdict

Thanks to last night’s Bristol City/Middlesbrough result, Villa’s destiny is in their own hands — 7 wins to close the season will guarantee a play-off spot. That’s unlikely, though, and all said, there are other clubs in better positions to make the top-six than Villa — the match in hand that each of Bristol City and Derby hold looms large right now, and the easier run-in that Derby and Boro have is a little disheartening to look at.

But an easy run of fixtures doesn’t guarantee success — everyone at B6 knows we learned that around this time last year. While some foes have easier run-ins, this will likely come down to which two squads play the best down the stretch.

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