Hello and welcome to Sports Mole
's live coverage of the Championship playoff final between Aston Villa
and Fulham. The most lucrative game in football is finally upon us again and it is up to Steve Bruce
and Slavisa Jokanovic
to find a way to earn their club a return to the Premier League. Let's see who features in each starting lineup...
ASTON VILLA XI:
Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Jedinak, Hourihane; Snodgrass, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
ASTON VILLA SUBSTITUTES: Bunn, Bree, Whelan, Bjarnason, Onomah, Hogan, Kodjia
Bettinelli; Fredericks, Odoi, Ream, Targett; McDonald, Cairney, Johansen; Kamara, Sessegnon, Mitrovic
FULHAM SUBSTITUTES: Button, Kalas, Christie, Norwood, Ayite, Piazon, Fonte
Let's start by taking a look at Aston Villa as Bruce makes just the one change to the team which began the second leg of the semi-final with Middlesbrough. Ahmed Elmohamady has recovered from injury so takes his place at right-back, with James Bree dropping down to the bench.
It's not really a surprise but Bruce has opted to keep faith with forward Lewis Grabban
. The Bournemouth loanee has not scored for three games but having netted a total of eight times in 17 matches for Villa, the frontman keeps out both Scott Hogan and Jonathan Kodjia.
takes his place in the centre of defence with the veteran having previously led out Chelsea and England at the national stadium. If reports are to be believed, Terry will remain at Villa if promotion to the Premier League is achieved.
As already mentioned, Hogan and Kodjia only feature on the bench but the two strikers have only scored seven goals between them this season. Given the money that Villa paid for their services, they owe the West Midlands outfit a contribution today.
Fulham boss Jokanovic has opted to keep the same team which recorded a 2-0 victory over Derby County just under two weeks ago. The Serbian has found a winning formula with this setup so retaining the same XI does not come as a surprise.
Jokanovic did have the option of bringing in Tomas Kalas, who has made 29 starts in the league this season. However, the former Chelsea man must make do with a place among the replacements with Denis Odoi
and Tim Ream keeping their spots in the centre of defence.
Aboudakar Kamara can probably count himself fortunate to remain in the team after his dive against Derby. Luckily for the Frenchman, the referee handed him a yellow card and did not leave open the possibility of any retrospective action.
Fulham have plenty of matchwinners on the bench. Floyd Ayite and Rui Fonte haven't always performed this season but are more than capable of contributing a goal, while Lucas Piazon has five goals and four assists to his name from 23 outings in the Championship and will relish the big occasion.
If Villa do not emerge victorious this evening, there will be few complaints from Bruce. In the build-up to this game, the Villa boss has claimed that he and his first-team squad have had the 'ideal preparation'
Bruce is also looking to reclaim a record today. Neil Warnock equalled his feat of four second-tier promotions by achieving second place with Cardiff City this season but Bruce will regain top spot if Villa see off the Cottagers. Click here
to read what Bruce has had to say.
Staying on the subject, Bruce is featuring in his third playoff final and he is yet to suffer defeat. Back in 2002, Birmingham City got the better of Norwich City on penalties while as recently as 2016, a long-range stunner from Mohamed Diame earned Hull City a 1-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday.
Bruce will also become just the third man to manage a team in three second-tier playoff finals. Former Leicester City manager Brian Little featured in three between 1991 and 1994 and Ian Holloway did the same with Blackpool and Crystal Palace between 2009 and 2013.
Villa's form heading into this contest has been mixed to say the least. Four victories and two draws have come from their most recent eight matches, but aside from the 4-0 trouncing of Ipswich Town, Villa have failed to score more than one goal in the other seven games.
On a positive note, Villa showed their mettle by keeping clean sheets in both legs of their playoff semi-final with Middlesbrough. The North-East outfit do not play the most exciting football in the final third but to not concede in 180 minutes of football when the stakes are high bodes well for this afternoon.
A number of Villa players have starred this season but the seven goals and 14 assists of Robert Snodgrass
have gone under the radar. The Scot provides a threat from set pieces and possesses the work-rate required for an occasion like this.
Fulham have received praise for their attacking football this season but midfielder Kevin McDonald feels that he and his teammates have got to show a "nasty streak" to gain promotion. Read the Scot's thoughts by clicking here
McDonald's words have been backed up by his boss. Jokanovic has acknowledged that Fulham's strength is with the ball but the Serbian wants to combine their skills by putting Villa 'under stress'
While Bruce is used to a visit to Wembley, Fulham are not. Remarkably, this is just their second ever visit to the national stadium, with the first coming back in the 1975 FA Cup final!
That means that Fulham are competing in their first-ever playoff final. Their three previous efforts - in 1988-89, 1997-98 and 2016-17 - all ended at the last-four stage.
It has been well-documented that Fulham have been the form team in the division since Christmas, but the Cottagers have been below their best over the last four matches. A scrappy win over Sunderland was followed by a 3-1 defeat to Birmingham City, an occasion where victory may just have influenced Cardiff City's performance against Reading.
Fulham then lost out to Derby County in the first leg of their playoff semi-final in the East Midlands and there was the possibility that all of their hard work would be undone in the space of nine days. However, to respond with a 2-0 win in the second leg suggests that Jokanovic has got his players back on track just at the right time.
KEY MAN! Much is made of Sessegnon's impact at Craven Cottage but if Fulham are to win this match, they need Mitrovic to rediscover his goalscoring touch. The Newcastle United loanee has not netted in 284 minutes of football but if the Serbian gets on the scoresheet today, Fulham are capable of doing their job at the other end.
Fulham have been frightening going forward at times this season and they enter the final as slight favourites after some blistering displays in a 23-game unbeaten run in the latter half of the campaign.
The likes of Sessegnon, Mitrovic and Ayite have the potential to cause real problems for Villa, although Bruce's men have been defensively astute so far this term, with the likes of Terry and Chester enjoying standout seasons at the back.
Fulham have tended to struggle in the history of Championship playoffs and they will now be facing a manager in Bruce who has already gained four promotions from post-season finals. The former Manchester United centre-back might just have the required nous to upset the applecart. Villa to prevail by a 2-1 margin.
HEAD TO HEAD! This match represents the 69th competitive meeting between the two sides and it could not be closer from an historical perspective. Both teams have 23 wins apiece, with the other 22 contests ending in draws!
In October, Villa were able to record a 2-1 triumph in front of their home supporters. Terry and Adomah both got on the scoresheet, either side of an effort from Johansen.
In the reverse fixture in February, second-half goals from Sessegnon and Ayite earned Fulham a relatively comfortable 2-0 triumph.
Here come the two teams to a rapturous reception from both sets of supporters. Outside of the top leagues in world football, this match is as big as they come. Both clubs have major plans for next season but they will only come to fruition with victory today.
A reminder of the two teams...
ASTON VILLA XI: Johnstone; Elmohamady, Chester, Terry, Hutton; Jedinak, Hourihane; Snodgrass, Adomah, Grealish; Grabban
FULHAM XI: Bettinelli; Fredericks, Odoi, Ream, Targett; McDonald, Cairney, Johansen; Kamara, Sessegnon, Mitrovic
KICKOFF! Fulham get us underway at Wembley!
The West Londoners have had most of the ball in these early stages but Villa are not being shy with regards to putting in meaty challenges. The pattern of the game could already have been set.
More possession-based football from Fulham who are prepared to stay patient. Villa are equally happy to sit back and absorb any pressure which comes their way.
Villa finally get a foot on the ball and it sees Snodgrass play an inviting ball through to Adomah down the left. However, Fredericks gets back to help the ball out for a goal kick.
We are yet to see any shots on goal but this one is warming up nicely. Fulham should have been given a free kick 30 yards out for a foul on Mitrovic but the referee waved play on without the Cottagers benefitting.
BOOKING! It's taken an age for play to stop but when it does, Chester is booked for that earlier challenge on Mitrovic.
Unless Fulham find a goal, you get the sense that Villa will continue to play on the break. In these type of conditions - hot and sunny - it may just work out to their advantage during the latter stages.
We are still waiting for a shot on goal but Fulham are starting to find more space in various areas of the pitch. It is giving them the chance to move the ball around quicker, which is giving Villa more problems to deal with.
Villa are trying to force the issue and Hourihane is perhaps lucky to avoid a yellow for a high challenge on Targett. We are through quarter-of-an-hour without an effort on goal. It's tense.
SHOT! It's a shot completely lacking in quality but it counts as one. Grealish tees up Snodgrass on the edge of the area but the Scot scuffs a strike well wide from 25 yards out.
In fairness to Villa, they are starting to show more ambition in the final third and it is resulting in the game opening up. Grealish is starting to have more of an impact.
SHOT! This is inventive from Kamara, who rolls off Terry and sends a volley towards goal. It is tipped over by Johnstone but the referee awards a goal kick.
GOAL! Aston Villa 0-1 Fulham (Tom Cairney)
Sessegnon has done nothing for 23 minutes but the youngster has just produced a magical through-ball for Cairney, who is able to slot into the far corner from 10 yards, beating the onrushing Johnstone. Brilliant goal.
SHOT! Fulham have their tails up now. Kamara is growing in confidence and has just tried to find the top corner with a 30-yard curler, but the ball goes over the crossbar.
Villa have decisions to make here. If they continue as they are, you wouldn't bet against Fulham netting a second but if they make changes, it frees up more space for the Cottagers. Still a long way to go before the break.
What on earth is Fredericks thinking? After an exchange with Grealish, the right-back stands on the winger's knee right in front of the fourth official on the touchline. He doesn't see it and the referee gives nothing. It's a sending off and Fulham are lucky.
Bruce didn't protest much so I'm not sure if he has seen it but when he does on the replay later, he will recognise that it was a game-changing moment that has not gone his team's way.
CHANCE! Almost a second for Fulham. A cross is sent in from the right and flicked on to Sessegnon at the back post, but the teenager's header from eight yards is straight at Johnstone.
Villa aren't laying a glove on Fulham right now. The West Midlands outfit continue to get deeper and deeper and it is playing into the hands of Fulham, who have Cairney and Johansen linking up with the front three. Villa need half time.
For all of Fulham's possession and dominace, Mitrovic hasn't really been involved. Aside from a couple of neat passes here and there, the Newcastle loanee is being well marshalled by Chester and Terry.
BOOKING! The referee levels up the booking count as Odoi goes in late on Grealish around 35 yards from goal. Easy decision.
CHANCE! Villa nearly score a wonder goal. Snodgrass flicks the ball over the wall for Grealish to run on to, but the winger blazes over the crossbar from no more than 10 yards. He should be hitting the target from there. The Fulham defence had been caught out.
Villa are living dangerously at the back. Moments after Mitrovic sees a shot blocked from 14 yards, a mix up between Johnstone and Chester almost leads to the forward nipping in to intercept on the edge of the area.
The match is being played like it is the closing minute of the game, rather than the final minute before half time. Space is opening up and it is probably due to the energy levels taking a hit in the heat.
There will be two minutes of added-on time.
HALF TIME: Aston Villa 0-1 Fulham
The half-time whistle goes at Wembley and Fulham deservedly lead thanks to Cairney's strike midway through the half. Villa have offered very little and Bruce must start to consider major changes because his team are not seeing much of the ball, nor creating many opportunities.
Fulham's goal came courtesy of Cairney's cool low finish from 10 yards but the credit must go to Sessegnon, who miscontroled the ball before chasing it down and playing a composed pass through the middle of the Villa defence. That probably adds a couple of million to his price-tag.
Villa's best chance went to Grealish but again, the provider deserved the praise. Snodgrass's clever pass over the top of the wall set up Grealish from 10 yards out but the winger volleyed well over the bar when he should have at least tested Bettinelli.
It's time for the two teams to start making their way back out in North London. Fulham will feel in control but equally aware that Villa must throw the kitchen sink at them to get back into the game. Expect more opportunities in this second half.
KICKOFF! Villa get us back underway.
Within the first 30 seconds, Villa almost find an equaliser when Snodgrass charges down an attempted clearance from Fredericks but the ball goes just wide of Bettinelli's post.
SHOT! Back come Fulham who get Johansen on the ball on the edge of the area but a left-footed strike is curled too close to Johnstone.
This game has certainly livened up. Fulham are taking the more direct approach when it comes to getting Mitrovic involved but Villa are keeping the forward away from the penalty area.
CHANCE! Villa should be level. Adomah's inswinging cross is perfect for the advancing Grealish but the winger - having beaten Bettinelli to the ball - powers a header over the bar from eight yards.
Bruce has certainly changed things up at the break because Villa are starting to lay siege to the Fulham goal. Crosses are coming in with regularity - especially from the left - and Fulham are struggling to deal with the extra threat.
Unlike in the first half, Fulham are not being given any time to play the ball about. Whether Villa can sustain this tempo is questionable but for now at least, they are causing problems for the West Londoners.
CHANCE! Out of nowhere, a chance for Fulham. A cross comes in from the left and finds Mitrovic by the penalty spot, but the forward glances his header a yard or two wide of the far post.
I don't see this match ending 1-0. Both teams appear to have decided to go for it, with Fulham reacting to the tempo set by Villa. Slowing things down wasn't working.
CHANCE! Grealish has very nearly just scored one of the great Wembley goals. The Villa attacker successfully advanced past four Fulham players before finding himself 12 yards from goal but even though his resulting shot got a deflection, Bettinelli stayed big to make the block at his near post.
BOOKING! After very nearly scoring a wonder goal, Grealish somehow stays on the pitch after a late, aggressive and studs-up challenge on Cairney. It's just a yellow after a melee and Grealish knows he is lucky.
It's been an incredible start to this second half. Both sets of players must be running on empty in this heat so changes cannot be too far away.
CHANCE! Very nearly a second for Fulham. An outswinging corner finds McDonald but despite being held, the Scot heads towards goal and misses the far corner by a yard. The referee waved away appeals for a penalty but McDonald was justified in asking the question.
CHANCE! Are Villa beginning to tire? Fulham are starting to look brighter and after Sessegnon sets up Johansen, the midfielder should score but instead fires well over from 15 yards out.
RED CARD! Fulham are down to 10 men! Odoi goes in hard on Grealish and completely mistimes his challenge. No complaints from the defender and Villa have been given a reprieve here. They were starting to look a beaten side.
SUBSTITUTION! Jokanovic is forced into a change as Johansen is replaced by Norwood. It won't be long before Kalas enters the action too.
CHANCE! Fulham are still pressing for a second and come close to scoring it. Cairney does brilliantly down the right before crossing for Mitrovic, but the striker's volley clips a Villa defender and goes over the bar.
BOOKING! Jedinak goes into the book for a cynical foul on Mitrovic.
SUBSTITUTIONS! Here comes Kalas with Kamara making way. Villa are also making changes with Onomah and Kodjia replacing Elmohamady and Jedinak.
Fulham still fancy their chances on the break but Villa are really starting to press again. They had been there for the taking before the sending off. There is still another goal in this.
SUBSTITUTION! A third Villa change is enforced as Hogan replaces the injured Hourihane.
SUBSTITUTION! A third switch for Fulham sees Christie take the place of Fredericks.
Villa are throwing everything at Fulham. Jokanovic probably has to accept that his team need to place focus on defending now and leave Mitrovic on his own in attack.
I'm not sure what formation Villa are playing now but Grabban, Hogan, Kodjia, Grealish, Adomah and Onomah are all on the pitch. Hutton goes into the book for a challenge on Mitrovic on the halfway line.
This is clever from Grealish, who gets past Mitrovic and then draws the foul out of the forward around 25 yards from goal. This is in Snodgrass territory.
SHOT! Almost, but that isn't enough at this stage. The Scot's outswinging effort misses the far post by a few inches.
There will be five minutes of added-on time.
CHANCE! Another chance for Villa, this time for Hogan. The substitute meets Adomah's inswinging cross but he cannot generate enough power or change in direction and the effort goes wide.
It's all Villa but can they create one final opportunity? Fulham have just got the ball into the final third of the pitch.
FULL TIME: Aston Villa 0-1 Fulham
The full-time whistle goes at Wembley and Fulham have held on to secure promotion to the Premier League! Cairney's goal in the first half proved enough but it took a stubborn defensive effort during the second to get the Cottagers over the line. Villa had their chances after the break but ultimately did not do enough to keep the pressure on their opponents.
That will be all from Sports Mole
for this game. Thank you for joining us today and for following our Championship coverage throughout the season.
If you would like to read our on-the-whistle report, you can do so by clicking here. Goodbye for now.