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Championship Play Off Preview: Can Favourites Fulham Finally Get Over The Line?

Championship Play Off Preview: Can Favourites Fulham Finally Get Over The Line?
Thursday,May 10,2018

The Championship playoffs start on Friday with four clubs left to battle it out for the last remaining place in the Premier League, a prize worth upwards of £200million.


Fulham go to Derby on Friday, with Middlesbrough hosting Villa the following evening, and the second legs on Monday and Tuesday, while the Wembley final takes place on Saturday 26 May.


Once again i-pools is the place to be for the Championship playoffs, with Match Pools to play for each game, as well as a Fantasy 5-A-Side for both legs.


The Cottagers are short priced favourites to win the playoffs, but having come so close to gaining automatic promotion before falling just short and seeing Cardiff go up instead, can they recalibrate and do it the hard way?


History shows teams that just miss out struggle - over the past 15 seasons, it’s come down to the last day of the regular season five times, and the side that misses out has only won the playoffs once.


Add to that the fact Fulham are yet to win a playoff game in six attempts, including last season against Reading, and all of a sudden Slavisa Jokanovic men don’t look so nailed on.


The Cottagers, who for much of the season have looked the second best team in the Championship (at least), saw their long unbeaten run come to an end at Birmingham in their final game.


After 23 unbeaten, a win in the Midlands would have been enough to see them snatch that second automatic spot away from Neil Warnock’s Bluebirds, but a shock 3-1 defeat sees them preparing to take on Gary Rowett’s Derby instead.


I had dinner with a couple of the Fulham team six weeks ago and while they were going great guns, they knew they were underdogs to catch Cardiff and claim that second automatic promotion spot.


Fulham were 18 games or so into their long unbeaten run, but the players were all too aware that above them Cardiff were on an extended winning run too, meaning they weren’t closing the gap.


They have known for a long time that it was likely they’d have to battle through the playoffs if they’re to make it to the Premier League, and they’re ready for it. Whether the added heartbreak of coming so close, and losing that last game when it turned out winning it would have sent them up, will have any impact remains to be seen. But Fulham boss Slavisa Jokanovic is a man not to be messed with, driven to succeed.


Despite their excellent performances, the Fulham players had gone through an excruciating training session the day I met up with them, no ball work, all punishing runs. Jokanovic is not a jokey, player’s best friend kind of coach, he’s more a disciplinarian who expects the very best, and he’s been getting it for much of the season.


Star players like Ryan Sessegnon and Tom Cairney look like their heading for the Premier League whether it’s with Fulham or not, but will Jokanovic’s focus be enough for Fulham to claim what they will feel is rightfully theirs?


Trying to stop them are Derby, who after a sticky spell ended the season well, beating Cardiff, drawing with Villa and thrashing Barnsley to send them down and the Rams into the playoffs with plenty of confidence.


Unlike Fulham, Derby have been striving to make the playoffs for most of the season, without the added hope of an automatic place, and come into this tie having achieved their goal and will be ready to kick on.


Derby are a team full of goals, with Championship top scorer Matej Vydra leading the line, so expect a high scoring semi-final between the third and sixth place finishers.


With home advantage on Friday, Derby are x3 to win in our Match Pool but it would be hard to back against Fulham, also at x3, while teenage sensation Sessegnon is just x2 to score at anytime add to his season tally of 15 league goals.


The other tie sees the fourth and fifth placed teams face off with the bookies struggling to split them as former West Brom Tony Pulis welcomes Aston Villa, managed by ex-Sunderland boss Steve Bruce, to Middlesbrough.


Villa finished the season with a 1-0 reverse at Millwall, but Bruce decided to rest some of his stars for that game, with John Terry, Lewis Grabban and Jack Grealish all given the day off with fourth place already secured.


While Villa have never played a playoff game before, manager Bruce is something of a specialist, having guided both Birmingham and Hull up through this route in the past.


They’ve also had the better of Boro this season, taking four points from a possible six, including spoiling the party for Pulis when he took over at the Riverside in December, nicking a 1-0 away win as the former Baggies boss took control for the first time.


With two wily old managers no stranger to guiding teams to promotion, expect this to be a tight affair, especially the first leg, which hosts Boro are x2 to take a lead in our Match Pool.


With so much on the line, one mistake could be crucial, and with huge pressure and talk of a £200million ‘prize’ on offer, the Championship playoffs will be fascinating as ever, thought mainly for those without a dog in the fight.


Fulham go into the playoffs as favourites and, ignoring their slip up at the weekend, in great form.


But they did the same last year and were knocked out in the playoff semis against Reading. Surely not two years running?


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