After nine draining months and 48 tough matches, Fulham and Aston Villa are potentially just 90 minutes away from the Premier League. Both sides successfully negotiated their play-off semi-finals – albeit by slender margins – to book their place at the Wembley showpiece, which is reported to be worth up to £300m to the victors.
It is not an exaggeration to say that such a windfall could set up one of these two clubs for the future, even though both had previously grown accustomed to life at the top table before their relatively recent relegations. Fulham were the best of the rest in the regular Championship season, finishing third in the table after failing to leapfrog runners-up Cardiff City on the last day.
Their final tally of 88 points was not quite enough to secure automatic promotion, however, with a slow start to the campaign ultimately proving costly. Fulham, indeed, only won four of their first 17 league outings and dropped as low as 17th, before mounting an impressive recovery in the standings during the second half of the season.
In that regard, there are clear parallels between the Cottagers’ 2017/18 and 2016/17. A 2-1 defeat by Brighton in November 2016 left Fulham down in mid-table, but they got stronger as the campaign progressed and were many people’s tip to win the play-offs ahead of Huddersfield Town, Sheffield Wednesday and Reading. Against the latter in the semi-finals, though, Slavisa Jokanovic’s charges seemed to freeze, with pressure getting the better of them. There was little doubt Fulham were a better team than Reading, but it was Jaap Stam’s side who held their nerve over the two legs.
Fulham fans must therefore have feared the worst when they lost 1-0 to Derby County in the first meeting between the two sides, but a 2-0 victory at Craven Cottage secured their passage to the final. The home side were excellent on the night, dominating possession, creating chances and giving little away at the other end of the field. Having avoided a second consecutive upset in the play-off semi-finals, the west Londoners will now fancy their chances of completing the job on Saturday.
Aston Villa will not be easy opponents, however, with back-to-back clean sheets in a 1-0 aggregate triumph over Middlesbrough showcasing their defensive strength; indeed, only promoted duo Wolverhampton Wanderers and Cardiff conceded fewer goals in the regular season than Steve Bruce’s side. Even the most ardent of football betting fans would struggle to argue that Villa play more attractive football than Fulham, but in a high-pressure encounter there is reason to believe they will come out on top.
For a start, this is a side featuring several highly experienced players who know how to handle such an occasion. John Terry is the obvious example having competed in countless crunch games at domestic, continental and international level for Chelsea and England, while Mile Jedinak has won the playoffs with Crystal Palace and Alan Hutton, James Chester and Glenn Whelan are other players who have been there and done it. Bruce, meanwhile, won promotion via a Wembley final with Hull City in 2016.
From Fulham’s point of view, an early goal could be crucial. It is they who will control the lion’s share of possession and look to get on the front foot as soon as possible, with Villa likely to be reasonably content to sit back and pick their moments on the counter. It is easy to see Fulham growing frustrated if they do not make an early breakthrough, and Villa should be favoured the longer this match remains goalless.
The recent history of Championship play-off finals supports the contention that this will be a low-scoring affair: West Ham United’s 2-1 defeat of Blackpool in 2012 was the last time both teams got on the scoresheet, while there has been no more than one goal scored in four of the last five finals (the exception was Norwich’s 2-0 success against Middlesbrough in 2015, another game which can hardly be called high-scoring).
With that in mind, Karamba’s price of 17/10 on under 1.5 goals looks tempting. It is entirely understandable that Fulham are favourites to emerge victorious on Saturday evening – after all, they did lose only one of their last 23 matches in the regular season – and it would be a surprise if they do not register more shots and record a higher share of possession.
It is difficult to shake the suspicion that Villa are better equipped handle the occasion, however, which is why it could be worth backing Bruce’s charges to win inside 90 minutes at 23/10 (888sport). If you are feeling particularly bold, consider putting some money on a 1-0 Villa victory – that particular wager is available at 29/4 (Sportnation).