With the end-of-season promotion shoot-out upon us, we provide our best bets for the race to the Premier League.
With four Championship heavyweights clinching all of the play-off spots, this year’s line-up is the most prodigious in recent memory.
Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Derby have all, to various extents, been established top-tier clubs, and each of them pack enough of a punch to seal a return in the next couple of weeks.
But the trio’s biggest challenge lies in stopping Fulham.
The Cottagers charged into third place by winning 16 of their first 20 league matches in 2018, before losing at Birmingham on Sunday to fall just short of automatic promotion.
While that defeat does raise some legitimate questions about their backbone, Slavisa Jokanovic’s side – inspired by Tom Cairney, Ryan Sessegnon and Aleksandar Mitrovic – have completed more passes, had more shots, and scored more goals than any of their rivals this term.
Jokanovic is proven at the business end of the season, too. His calmness under pressure helped Watford over the line three years ago, and he is adaptable enough to learn the lessons from defeat to Reading at this stage last season.
His side are justifiably clear favourites at to end the month as a Premier League side.
They will certainly fancy their chances of completing phase one of the job at against Derby, whose own demise hasn’t tended to require much effort on the part of their opposition.
The Rams have been well set for promotion in three of the last four seasons before blowing up in unfathomable fashion, a trend that began when they conceded a late winner to 10-man QPR in the 2014 final.
Despite holding onto sixth place in the final weeks of the season, siding with the Rams to win the tie at , would be unwise.
Elsewhere, Aston Villa and Middlesbrough play out perhaps the more intriguing of the semi-finals, with the battle between two key individuals pivotal to its outcome.
Jack Grealish’s evolution into a central midfielder has been the driving force behind the Villans’ positive second half of the season.
The 22-year-old is the fulcrum of everything positive for his side going forward, playing the eighth-most key passes per game in the division, as well as completing more dribbles and firing off the joint-third most shots of any Villa player.
But, for all that the England U21 international has impressed, it is Middlesbrough who boast the division’s leading trump card in Adama Traore.
The winger is rated by WhoScored as the Championship’s best player this season, having added superb final product to his searing pace. He is in the division’s top 10 for assists, and, remarkably, has completed 7.1 dribbles per game. The next best is 3.4.
With little separating these sides elsewhere, it is Traore’s sensational ability that shines a positive light on Boro’s price of to win the tie.
And, with some uncertainty surrounding Fulham’s mettle, it is well worth taking the available for Tony Pulis’ side to go all the way at Wembley.
That price is distorted by the difficulty of their semi-final, so is a tempting one for an experienced side that are second only to Wolves in the Championship form table.
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