With the Champions League and relegations spots close to being done and dusted, the most compelling matches this weekend in England will come from the Championship. In the Championship, Wolverhampton Wanderers have already clinched promotion to the Premier League. One point separates second place Cardiff City and third place Fulham who are battling for the second automatic promotion spot. Villa sit comfortably in fourth. However, behind them, there are a large set of teams who are all striving to reach the playoff in order to achieve promotion. Derby County, Middlesbrough, Millwall and Brentford are all in contention for the final two playoff spots. Two fixtures during a pivotal matchday 45 will feature two sets of teams battling each other for promotion.
Aston Villa vs Derby County
Aston Villa enter this game comfortably in one the playoff spots. They are in fourth place and ten points clear of fifth-placed Middlesbrough. In good form, they enter the match with four wins in their last five. Villa’s run-in will prove crucial in the promotion battle as they play both sixth-placed Derby and seventh-placed Millwall. They do benefit from the fact that this fixture is home at Villa Park.
With a playoff spot already confirmed, Steve Bruce could easily decide to rest a good portion of their starting eleven here. If he does so, look for a squad full of heavy rotation and youth. It is incredibly important that Villa avoid injury before the playoff. Conor Hourihane, one of Villa’s key midfielders, might be rested here to help him regain fitness in. If so, expect Henri Lansbury to start in his place.
Villa do have a very outside shot at second if the results go their way. Thus, Bruce may choose to play their strongest starting eleven possible in order to keep the pressure on the teams above them. Lewis Grabban had a great performance in their 4-0 victory over Ipswich and could see himself in the starting eleven if Bruce elects to play his strongest team. Grabban is tied for second in goals scored in the Championship with nineteen.
Derby enter this fixture in very poor form with just three wins in their last fourteen. However, they did have a huge victory in their last match with a 3-1 win over second-placed Cardiff. Derby sit in sixth place currently. However, a loss in this fixture could lead to them fall to seventh. Thus, for the second match in a row, Derby have a huge task ahead of them. A win would be ideal for Derby however even a point would be an incredible result and keep them in the playoff race.
Despite the fact that Derby’s squad is drained from their midweek fixture against Cardiff, expect Derby to make very few changes to their starting eleven. Manager, Gary Rowett, should set Derby up in their familiar 3-4-3 formation. Cameron Jerome scored two against Cardiff and should get the start again against Villa. Matěj Vydra also looked prolific in attack after coming on in the second half and should find himself in the starting eleven this week. He leads the Championship with twenty goals. Finally, Andreas Weimann should start at left wing back as he provides width out left and is very capable of both going forward and defending.
Aston Villa: Johnstone; Taylor, Jedinak, Chester, Bree; Bjarnason, Lansbury; Kodjia, Grealish, Adomah; Grabban
Derby County: Carson; Keogh, Davies, Forsyth; Wisdom, Huddlestone, Johnson, Weimann; Lawrence, Jerome, Vydra.
Prediction: Aston Villa 2-1 Derby County
Middlesbrough vs Millwall
Middlesbrough enter the game in decent form with three wins in their last five. This is a crucial game for Middlesbrough as they currently sit fifth in the table. With a win against Millwall, they will clinch their spot in the playoff. However, a loss to Millwall would leave both teams equal on points, leading to a nervy final matchday for Middlesbrough. A draw would be a great result here for Middlesbrough as they would enter the final matchday three points clear of Millwall and with a far superior goal differential. Middlesbrough will also have the home support behind them for their final home game of the season.
Team-wise, Middlesbrough should start the same squad that beat Derby County 2-1 in their previous match. Adama Traore is tied for the most league assists in 2018 in any of the top four tiers of England. His creative presence will be integral to Middlesbrough’s attack. The only real difficulty for Middlesbrough’s manager, Tony Pulis, will be who to start up top. Britt Assombalonga started as striker against Derby and scored Middlesbrough’s second goal. That goal was his team-leading fourteenth in the Championship. On the other hand, Patrick Bamford is arguably better up top. He has 10 goals in the Championship and only lost his starting role earlier because of injury. However, form means everything for a striker and Assombalonga is in great form and should lead the line for the home side.
Before their 3-0 loss to Fulham in their previous match, Millwall had gone seventeen matches unbeaten. This fixture is the final kickoff on Saturday so Millwall will know where they stand relative to the rest of the league when the game kicks off. They could start as high as seventh or as low as tenth, knowing they need a victory to stay in the race for promotion. Millwall are great away from home with their last loss away in the league coming on January 2. Millwall also won the reverse fixture over Middlesbrough 2-1.
Look for Millwall to start with their typical 4-4-2 formation that has worked so well for them throughout their unbeaten stretch. Neil Harris, the longest-serving manager in the Championship, should set his team up to hit Middlesbrough on the counter. He has been very faithful to his first choice eleven throughout this season so it would be very surprising to see him make any changes to the squad he featured against Fulham. If he does make any changes, look for him to rest midfielder George Saville. Saville has looked somewhat passive during Millwall’s past few matches and may require a rest. However, with only two matches left, resting anyone would be a bold move.
Middlesbrough: Randolph; Friend, Gibson, Ayala, Shotton; Besic, Clayton, Howson; Downing, Assombalonga, Traoré
Millwall: Archer; Meredith, Cooper, Hutchinson, Romeo; Marshall, Williams, Saville, Wallace; Morison, Gregory
Prediction Middlesbrough 1-1 Millwall
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