With Aston Villa’s fate effectively sealed some time ago, the last couple of weeks of the season seemed to have plodded on somewhat. With the regular season now done and dusted, all attention can now fully turn to the playoffs.
Obviously, the scenario is far from ideal. Fingers can point at why we didn’t gain automatic promotion, but right now all that is irrelevant. The focus must be collectively on our forthcoming opponents Middlesbrough and first and foremost, gaining a good result at the Riverside this coming Saturday.
There is plenty of panic about entering into this situation. The ‘lottery of the playoffs’ is a term you’ll hear over and over. Personally, I don’t think we should be panicked at all and it is far from a lottery. The trend seems to be to get sucked into focusing on our opponents’ strengths and not even seeing their weaknesses. Many will have you believe that we will be playing teams on par with Barcelona.
There are many reasons why we should feel full of confidence heading into these games and these are the main ones for me.
Boro is our immediate concern. This season we have played them three times; twice in the league and once in the Carabao Cup. We’ve won once, drawn once and lost once. Unremarkable on the face of it.
The cup game holds very little influence in my opinion. Tommy Elphick’s sending off allowed Boro to take the lead from the penalty spot and left an already second string side up against it in a competition we had no ambition towards anyway. No tears were shed being eliminated from a competition that was only going to create fixture congestion the further we progressed.
The league games (where it really mattered) proved much more fruitful. First of all, it is worth noting that Boro didn’t manage to score over 180 minutes. A frustrating night at Villa Park saw a 0-0 draw. However, Villa dominated the entire game. A sending off for ex-Villan Adama Traore after 4 minutes obviously helped but it is also worth remembering that Henri Lansbury’s dismissal just after the hour mark evened things up. Indeed, it was when we were down to 10 men when Conor Hourhiane’s goalbound effort was blocked on the line by teammate Scott Hogan which really summed up the start of our season.
Yet maybe the match that will weigh on Boro’s minds most is the late December loss on their own patch. On the back of a terrible December, Villa put in a superb display and had Robert Snodgrass on hand to nod in an Albert Adomah cross to seal an impressive 1-0 victory, despite missing several key players. The result also extended our notable unbeaten run at the Riverside to five matches. Fingers crossed we can now make that six.
I expect the games in the playoffs to follow a similar vein though; it will be tight over the two legs, but Villa should have the edge, especially with home advantage in the return match.
WE DON’T HAVE TO GO TO CRAVEN COTTAGE
I don’t believe that we should fear any team in the playoffs. However, avoiding Fulham at this point at least means we won’t have to travel to Craven Cottage. There is a strange sequence of results concerning ourselves and the Cottagers by where neither team ever seem to prosper at the others home ground. Unlike our mastery of the Riverside, our record at the Cottage is particularly bad in recent times. We have lost our last four visits.
Since 2001 when Fulham was promoted to the Premier League, despite plenty of draws, we have won just twice there in fifteen attempts. But it’s even worse for Fulham’s record at Villa Park; they have won just once in the same period. Maybe being paired with them wouldn’t have been so bad.
Whilst playing them at Wembley is of course by no means a recipe for success instead (should they make it to the final of course), I would certainly think the size of the ground and the pitch, in particular, would suit us more than them. It might seem like clutching at straws, but whatever happens, avoiding a trip to the Cottage can only be a good thing.
TIME TO PREPARE
I made reference to the fact that the end of the season seemed to drag over the last couple of weeks due to us pretty much knowing we’d only be making the playoffs and being assured of at least fourth place for a while. This could actually work in our favour though.
Out of all the teams, we are the only ones who were able to take a hit in the final game of the season and rest key players. Our result was irrelevant. Boro and Derby still needed to fight to be assured of their positions. This, of course, might help with continuity I guess, but I would still rather have a fresher group of players going into these games.
As for Fulham, well, they were due to wobble. Is it going to continue into the playoffs? We’ll find out. One thing is for sure, historically teams that miss out on promotion on the final day of the season tend not to fare well. In the last fifteen years, that scenario has occurred five times. Only once did that team go on to win the playoffs.
Each of Boro, Fulham and Derby have relatively recent experience of playing in and losing in the playoffs. At least one of them have been present in each of the last three years. Obviously, we do not have that familiarity. However, whilst we may not be quite used to that specific occasion, we have a team, and a manager no less, that has big game experience which could prove vital.
For me, John Terry is absolutely invaluable here. No team can boast a player with his wealth of experience in games of the very highest magnitude. The squad is full of older heads such as Mile Jedinak, Glenn Whelan and Snodgrass that should be able to guide through some of the more inexperienced members of the squad if needed. We also should remember that Wembley is not a new experience for Jack Grealish either.
And whilst we may love him or loathe him, Steve Bruce has done this successfully twice before. He’s made mistakes this season but maybe this is where he brings it all together.
In short, we should be able to handle the occasion at least as well as either Fulham or Derby, should we make it past Boro of course. We certainly shouldn’t feel that we lack the knowhow just because we haven’t been here as a club.
Lewis Grabban has been almost like a missing part of the jigsaw since his arrival in January. For me, not having a 20 goal striker has massively hampered us this season. Hogan appeared to be getting into some sort of stride at a couple of points but it never quite materialised. Our biggest hope, Jonathan Kodjia has been sidelined for most of the season.
Albert Adomah has done very well but his goals seemed to come in spurts and have dried up in recent months. Not having a reliable main man up top was damaging.
Grabban looked right at home straight away. Not just a goalscorer, he has been a menace with his pace and work rate also. With ten starts and a handful of substitute appearances, the Bournemouth loanee has scored eight goals already. It might not sound very many, but if he was with us from the start, I truly believe we’d already be celebrating promotion. The fact that he managed another twelve goals before he joined us for an absolutely woeful Sunderland side proves a point.
Luckily, we have him now at least. And he could be the difference in whether we go up or stay in this division for at least another season.