MX23RW : Saturday, June 19 06:25:37| >> :600:125785:125785:
May 11, 2019 at 12.30pm UK at Villa Park
Attendance: 40,754
Aston Villa
West BromWest Bromwich Albion
Hourihane (75'), Abraham (79' pen.)
FT(HT: 0-1)
Gayle (16')

Preview: Aston Villa vs. West Bromwich Albion - prediction, team news, lineups

Sports Mole previews the Championship playoff semi-final first leg between Aston Villa and West Brom, including predictions, team news and past meetings.

Aston Villa make just their second appearance in the Football League playoffs as they take on West Bromwich Albion in the first leg of their semi-final tie at Villa Park on Saturday afternoon.

The Villans fell just short 12 months ago when losing 1-0 to Fulham in the final, but they are in good shape ahead of this double-header against their West Midlands rivals, who finished four points better off at the end of the regular Championship season.

Aston Villa

Aston Villa manager Dean Smith watches his cat do a whoopsie on his beret on April 22, 2019© Reuters

That defeat to Fulham at Wembley last May was extremely difficult for Villa to take. Considered a make-or-break clash - as is so often the case in the playoffs - the Villans lost to a Tom Cairney strike and with that loss came a series of cost-cutting measures.

The hangover continued into the 2018-19 campaign as a run of one win in 10 matches, culminating in a 3-3 draw with Preston North End on October 2, which brought an end to Steve Bruce's time at the club.

Villa were down in 12th at the time and supporters were growing frustrated by the club's lack of direction. In stepped boyhood Villa fan Dean Smith a week later, followed by John Terry as his new assistant, and the Midlanders have steadily climbed the division.

This push for promotion was built on a club-record 10-match winning run through March and April, getting them over the line with time to spare.

Their incredible winning streak was ended in a 1-1 draw with fellow promotion hopefuls Leeds United - a match that will be best remembered for Marcelo Bielsa's decision to allow the Villans to score an unopposed goal.

Then came a 2-1 loss to Championship winners Norwich City on the final day, though Smith was happy to turn focus to this match with West Brom by that point.

Momentum has dried up somewhat due to this two-game winless streak, then, but no team in the division boasts better form than Smith's side over the past few months.

Villa finished one place lower this season than last time out, collecting seven points fewer over the 46 matches, but it can be argued that they are in a more settled place this time around under a manager who clearly 'gets' the club.

Using the experience of last season's heartbreak, Villa will be hopeful that it is second time lucky in their bid to get back into the big time.

Recent form in Championship: WWWWDL

West Brom

West Brom caretaker manager Jimmy Shan pictured on March 13, 2019© Reuters

If there was any doubt about what the target for West Brom is this season, their decision to sack Darren Moore in early March made it very clear that only promotion will do.

The Baggies were relegated from the Premier League last season after putting up a brave effort under caretaker boss Moore, who was handed the job on a permanent basis to the joy of many.

Moore appeared to be doing a decent enough job at guiding Albion back into the top tier, but those behind the scenes clearly felt otherwise as they pulled the trigger with the club fourth in the table, seven points clear of seventh-placed Bristol City but nine points off the top two.

The decision was made all the more surprising when considering that a replacement had not been lined up. Instead, it has been left to James Shan to take charge until the summer, when a decision will be made on who is best placed to take the club forward.

Shan can be pleased with his work to date. However, two months on from Moore's sacking, West Brom ended the season seven points clear of seventh place and nine points adrift of the top two - the exact place they found themselves in before.

Finishing fourth in the table is not the worst omen when it comes to the playoffs, though, as the team to have ended in that position has earned promotion from the second tier in two of the last five seasons - Queens Park Rangers in 2014 and Hull City in 2016.

West Brom will be participating in their fourth Football League playoff campaign, securing promotion from the third tier in 1993 but losing out in both attempts in the second tier (2001 and 2007).

One win in their last three is hardly the best way to enter this semi-final tie, though, a run that includes a final-day defeat to Derby at Pride Park and a goalless draw with Reading.

Shan will know that there is no margin for error over these next two, possibly three, matches. One last final push is required from West Brom's players, starting with Saturday lunchtime's trip to their local rivals.

Recent form in Championship: LWWDWL

Team News

Jack Grealish in action for Aston Villa on April 22, 2019© Reuters

Lovre Kalinic is back from a knee injury, but Jed Steer has kept has kept five clean sheets in Villa's last 13 matches and seems certain to retain his place between the sticks on Saturday.

Smith had the luxury of being able to rest key players Tyrone Mings, Ahmed Elmohamady, John McGinn, Jack Grealish and Tammy Abraham on the final day of the season, so that quintet will be raring to go against West Brom.

There could be a surprise return for James Chester over the next couple of games, having recently resumed training following a long-term layoff with a knee injury.

Elsewhere, Jonathan Kodjia has performed well of late and may force his way into Smith's plans.

As for the visitors, Matthew Phillips has made five successive appearances from the bench since recovering from injury and is now in line for his first start since early March, likely at the expense of Jacob Murphy.

Hal Robson-Kanu was shown a straight red card for kicking out at Bradley Johnson in Albion's loss to Derby and will serve a three-match ban for violent conduct, ruling him out of the entire playoff campaign.

The only injury concerns for Shan are in midfield as Jake Livermore has been struggling with an ankle problem and the experienced Gareth Barry, formerly of Villa, underwent surgery on his knee last month and is not expected to feature again this term.

Striker Dwight Gayle has scored seven goals in his last seven starts, although only one of these goals has come away from The Hawthorns, while strike partner Jay Rodriguez has netted in three of his last four games against Villa, including both matches during the 2018-19 Championship season.

Aston Villa possible starting lineup:
Steer; Elmohamady, Tuanzebe, Mings, Taylor; Whelan, McGinn, Grealish; Adomah, Abraham, El Ghazi

West Brom possible starting lineup:
Johnstone; Hegazi, Dawson, Bartley; Holgate, Harper, Johansen, Gibbs; Phillips, Gayle, Rodriguez

Head To Head

This will be the 170th meeting between the local rivals in all competitions, with Villa winning on 77 occasions and losing 55.

West Brom are unbeaten in their last four games against the Villans, winning on each of their last two trips to Villa Park.

The most recent encounter finished 2-0 to Albion at Villa Park in February thanks to first-half goals from Robson-Kanu and Rodriguez, while the reverse fixture ended in a 2-2 draw five months ago.

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We say: Aston Villa 2-1 West Brom

Only league winners Norwich (93) scored more goals than West Brom (87) and Villa (82) in the regular season, so goals can be expected. West Brom finished four points better off than their opponents, but the hosts ended the season stronger and need to put that momentum to good use ahead of Tuesday's return match at The Hawthorns.

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