The first of three back-to-back Play-Off Finals gets under way on Saturday, when Aston Villa and Fulham go head-to-head in a one-off battle for Sky Bet Championship promotion.
The Wembley Stadium showdown kicks off at 5pm, pitting the teams that finished third and fourth in the regular season up against each other with a place in the Premier League the prize on offer.
ROAD TO WEMBLEY
Final League Position: 4th
Play-Offs: Middlesbrough 0-1 Aston Villa; Aston Villa 0-0 Middlesbrough (1-0 aggregate)
Top Scorer: Albert Adomah (14)
Final League Position: 3rd
Play-Offs: Derby County 1-0 Fulham; Fulham 2-0 Derby County (2-1 aggregate)
Top Scorer: Ryan Sessegnon (15)
Aston Villa were in the automatic promotion mix for a spell, with a seven-game winning run between December and February the highlight. However, four points from a possible 15 across March and April meant they would have to settle for the play-offs.
Lewis Grabban’s goals since his January arrival have aided the Villans’ cause, while the likes of Sam Johnstone, John Terry and the sparking form of Jack Grealish have provided a strong spine to the side.
Fulham missed out on the chance to nip into the second automatic promotion place on the last day of the season, when their 23-game unbeaten run came to an end away at Birmingham City.
That streak, the longest in the EFL this season, stretched back to mid-December, and helped the Cottagers climb into contention after a slow start to the campaign.
Ryan Sessegnon was named Championship Player of the Year for his performances this term, while January addition Aleksandar Mitrovic’s goalscoring exploits helped Fulham keep pace at the top.
John Terry and Albert Adomah goals either side of half-time helped Aston Villa to a 2-1 home win over Fulham when the pair first met this season, back in mid-October.
The second encounter, at Craven Cottage, also resulted in a home win. Ryan Sessegnon and Floyd Ayite struck after the break in a routine 2-0 success.
Last season, the clubs won their respective home fixtures too. Villa by a goal to nil, and Fulham returning the favour with a 3-1 triumph in April.
Over the years, it’s split down the middle. It’s 23 wins each, with 22 draws. History won’t help here…
Steve Bruce has been in this situation before, and is chasing a record fifth promotion from the Championship to the Premier League. Two with Birmingham City and two with Hull City, the most recent of which came in 2015 when the Tigers tamed Sheffield Wednesday under the arch.
This is Aston Villa’s second season in the Sky Bet Championship after finishing bottom of the Premier League in 2014/15. Steve Bruce came in prior to last season and, while 13th place may have been underwhelming, steadying the ship at Villa Park was vital.
Patience has paid off, and the boss has masterminded a vast improvement. The club are now just 90 minutes from returning to the top flight, where they had spent the 29 years previous.
Slavisa Jokanovic guided Fulham to the post-season last year and although they were undone by Reading across two legs, the Serb has gone one better this time around by breaking the club’s play-offs duck and booking a first Wembley visit since 1975.
Fulham were promoted to the Premier League as champions in 2001, going on to spend 13 years there before relegation in 2014. After two years narrowly avoiding a drop into League One, Jokanovic arrived and has got the club fighting for a return to the top flight.
Anthony Taylor will referee the Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Final. Click here to see the match officials selected for duty.
Faryl Smith will be singing the National Anthem prior to kick-off.
The Sky Bet Championship Final will be screened live on Sky Sports Football.