Championship playoffs: Predictions, key battles, stars to watch
Despite missing out on an automatic promotion spot, a place in the Premier League remains tantalisingly close for four Championship clubs via the playoffs.
But only two teams can advance to the final, dubbed "the richest game in football," at Wembley on May 27 (live on ESPN+). (Oh, and unlike the Champions League, away goals don't matter here.) Will it be playoff heartbreak yet again for fallen giants Leeds when they face Derby? Who will win the Midlands battle between former European champions Aston Villa and last season's top-flight dropouts, West Brom?
Here's everything you need to know, from the managers to the potential match-winners, who can decide the ties to the keys for victory.
Derby County vs. Leeds United
The backstory: Frank Lampard's Derby face Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds for the first time since "Spygate," the furore sparked in January when a Leeds employee was sent to covertly scout a Derby training session. Leeds were aiming for automatic promotion until the last few weeks of the season but fell away alarmingly and only just finished third, while Derby secured their place in the top six on the final day of the regular season. Leeds won both of their previous league fixtures, 4-1 at Pride Park in August and 2-0 in the return at Elland Road.
This would be a tasty enough tie -- two great clubs of the 1970s with enmity going back decades -- even without two of the biggest names who have ever managed in the Championship in either dugout. But when you throw in the spying controversy -- questions about which Lampard wearily tolerated and Bielsa angrily rejected this week -- as well, then this has the potential to be one of the spiciest playoff games in recent memory.
How they match up: Lampard noted last weekend that Leeds will be favourites, on the basis that they finished third, nine points ahead of Derby, but recent form might point the other way. Leeds have looked weary for months, Bielsa's intensely demanding style possibly taking its toll on a young and relatively shallow squad, and they lost three of their last four games of the campaign. Derby, on the other hand, have lost just one of their last 12 and reacted superbly when put under pressure by West Brom in that crucial final game.
Derby star to watch: Derby's best players this season have been loanees, in defender Fikayo Tomori and midfielder Mason Mount (both from Chelsea), but their biggest attacking threat is probably Harry Wilson, borrowed from Liverpool, who possesses a cannon of a left foot and can rip through defences.
Leeds star to watch: Pablo Hernandez has been not just Leeds' best player this season but arguably the best in the whole division, the former Swansea and Valencia winger now acting as one of Bielsa's attacking central midfielders in his 4-1-4-1 formation.
X factor -- Derby: Tomori, a silky smooth defender with a calmness and sense of timing that allows him to dominate strikers despite not being that physically imposing, has improved all season and will be in the Premier League next season either way. If he maintains his form and keeps out Leeds, it might just be with Derby. If Ashley Cole is fit, he could provide coolness and experience in these most high-pressured of games.
X factor -- Leeds: Kemar Roofe was the club's star man in the first half of the season but was injured in February and wasn't able to get back into the team after returning to fitness. However, with Patrick Bamford suspended, Leeds will rely on Roofe for goals.
Derby need to ... keep a close eye on Hernandez, particularly as Bradley Johnson, their holding midfielder, has probably been their weak link in recent weeks.
Leeds need to ... finish their chances. In their last four games, which yielded just a point and cost them automatic promotion, Leeds took 108 shots, 25 of which were on target, but they scored only four goals. They will need to be more clinical.
Prediction: Derby County. They should win the first leg at home, and then have enough to close things out at Elland Road.
Aston Villa vs. West Bromwich Albion
The backstory: Local rivals face off in a derby that is usually pretty lively, even without the crushing pressure of the playoffs. Both teams have changed their manager this season, with Villa fan Dean Smith taking over at his boyhood club in October, when Steve Bruce was dismissed with the side 15th in the table and going nowhere, and he's assisted by former England captain John Terry.
West Brom's dugout switch was more unexpected, as Darren Moore paid the surprising price for a winless three games in March, even though they were fourth in the table and with an outside chance of automatic promotion. Caretaker boss Jimmy Shan took charge, and since then has done a very decent job considering the uncertainty over his position and constant speculation over whether a more permanent boss might be appointed.
How they match up: These are perhaps two of the best matched teams that could face each other in a playoff game. After an indifferent start under Smith and a terrible run around the turn of the year, Villa have been in blistering form since March, and come into this game flying. West Brom haven't been as rampant but won the last game between the two, and have a wealth of talent available that means they could have the ability to turn the tie if things are going against them.
Villa's star to watch: It's no coincidence that Villa's recent brilliant run began when Jack Grealish returned from an injury that had kept him out for the guts of three months. Since coming back, Grealish has been made captain and has led by being the division's outstanding individual player since March.
West Brom's star to watch: West Brom are at their best when Jay Rodriguez and Dwight Gayle combine. The forwards have 45 goals between them this season, which accounts for over half of their overall total. If they're to make it into the final, these two will need to fire.
X factor -- Villa: Tammy Abraham. The Chelsea loanee might turn out to be one of those players who are excellent in the Championship but aren't quite good enough for the Premier League, but he has scored 25 goals this season and will be back after missing three games, thus theoretically well-rested.
X factor -- West Brom: Shan switches between a 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 system, and in both the central midfielders are vital. In Rekeem Harper they have a youngster who is going to be a star, the complete modern midfielder who can run and run and run, but also pass and pass and pass.
Villa need to ... get the ball to Grealish as much as possible. When he has control of the game, he can bend it to his will, and if Villa are to succeed most things will go through him.
West Brom need to ... attack Villa with gusto. Villa's signing of defender Tyrone Mings in January was inspired, and really helped to tighten their backline. But West Brom need to back their excellent forwards to break through, and should do so early on.
Prediction: Aston Villa. To a point, form can go out the window in the playoffs, but Villa's fine run has been more a true reflection of their ability rather than a transient spell of good play.