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Preview: Aston Villa vs. Fulham - prediction, team news, lineups

Sports Mole previews the Championship playoff final as Aston Villa take on Fulham at Wembley for the chance to gain promotion into the Premier League.

Aston Villa take on Fulham at Wembley Stadium in the Championship playoff final on Saturday as Steve Bruce and Slavisa Jokanovic's sides compete for a place in the Premier League next term.

In a game potentially worth upwards of £170m for the winners, Bruce will be hoping to earn his fifth promotion from the second tier as a manager, while Jokanovic will be striving to rewrite some torrid history for the Cottagers when competing in the post-season spectacle.

Aston Villa

John Terry playing for Aston Villa in July 2017© Offside

At times this term Villa under Bruce threatened to challenge for an automatic promotion spot, having won seven games on the bounce between December 2017 and February 2018.

The Villans, however, stuttered and flailed in what was arguably a rather problematic end to their Championship season that saw Bruce's charges collect just four points from a possible 15 on offer across March and April.

Such was Villa's strength for the majority of the season, though, a playoff position never really appeared out of touch and Bruce's men finished the season in fourth place, seven points clear of fifth-placed Middlesbrough.

In the grand scheme of the playoffs, that points difference was to matter little as Villa then had to face Tony Pulis's men over two legs in the semi-finals. Villa produced a hard-fought 1-0 aggregate win over 180 minutes that was perhaps emblematic of the side's embattled character present over the course of 48 games this season. Bruce is now chasing a record fifth promotion from the Championship as a manager.

The club will be hoping that the travelling Midlands support will be able to recreate a similar atmosphere to the one conjured at Villa Park throughout the season. At home Villa were outstanding this campaign; across the regular 46-game season, they notched 42 goals at home and were able to bag 49 points in the process.

Unlike Fulham, the Villans have never taken part in a playoff throughout their history and entering uncharted territory might just help Bruce's men as they head into a high-pressured fixture loaded with ramifications that could have a defining impact on a club that were relegated from the top flight just one season ago.

What will likely help Villa too is the presence of former Chelsea legend John Terry in the heart of defence - the 37-year-old has played in Champions League finals and holds five Premier League titles as a player.

Elsewhere, on-loan Manchester United stopper Sam Johnstone has arguably been the Championship's best keeper this term, producing 20 clean sheets from 45 appearances for the club, and he could prove vital against a Fulham side full of attacking marvel.

Recent form: WWDLWD


Kevin McDonald, Oliver Norwood, Tomas Kalas and Tim Ream celebrate after the Championship playoff semi-final between Fulham and Derby County on May 14, 2018© Offside

The last few months have been nothing short of nerve-jangling for Fulham fans, who, after a glorious 23-game unbeaten run, saw the club charge from relative Championship obscurity to the brink of automatic promotion.

Failure on the final day of the season at the hands of Birmingham City saw Jokanovic's charges give up second place to Cardiff City, leaving Fulham with the task of having to find a way past Derby County in the playoff semi-finals.

Jokanovic's charges were off the boil in a 1-0 defeat in the opening leg at Pride Park, but a commanding 2-0 victory back in London quashed any hushed rumours of Fulham gearing up to fall at the penultimate hurdle.

The Whites are now just one game from returning to Premier League glory and face a contest that could be worth at least £170m for the victors. Fulham went up to the English top flight in 2001 having won the Championship and spent 13 years in the Premier League before relegation in 2014.

Serbian coach Jokanovic guided Fulham to the playoffs last term too, but the club came up short during the semi-finals over two legs against Reading. Finally breaking their playoff duck to reach Wembley should hand the bookies' favourites a further confidence boost ahead of a monumental clash on Saturday evening.

Central to the club's success this season has been the continual rise of young winger Ryan Sessegnon, whose performances this term have seen the 18-year-old claim the Championship Player of the Year award. Sessegnon has 16 goals and seven assists in the Championship and bagged the opener in Fulham's 2-0 second-leg win over Derby in the semis.

The January acquisition of Aleksandar Mitrovic will be viewed as an equally defining moment for the Whites this season too. The 23-year-old Newcastle United forward moved to South London on loan on the final day of the window and has since scored a crucial 12 league goals in 17 appearances.

Fulham head to Wembley knowing that a single defeat could undermine and ultimately nullify what has been a standout season for the Cottagers, but they also head into the game safe in the knowledge that the club has already shown the capability to put together the longest unbeaten run in the league this campaign.

Recent form: DWWLWW

Team News

Ryan Sessegnon in action during the Championship game between Fulham and Sheffield United on March 6, 2018© Offside

Aboubakar Kamara did not have the best of games against Derby last time out, leaving Jokanovic likely to lead with Floyd Ayite out on the right. Chelsea loanee Lucas Piazon will also be hoping to stake a starting claim, though.

Fulham should continue with a 4-3-3 that sees Mitrovic leading the line, while Sessegnon and Ayite should provide creative support from out wide.

The influential Tom Cairney will sit in the centre of a three-man midfield with Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen occupying the space either side of the 27-year-old.

As for Villa, Bruce is still sweating on the fitness of Ahmed Elmohamady at right-back, who will be replaced by James Bree again should he miss out through injury.

Lewis Grabban will look to lead Villa from the front in a 4-5-1 that will also see Jack Grealish, Albert Adomah and Robert Snodgrass aiming to assist attacks from a little deeper.

Adomah is Villa's top scorer this term with 14 league goals, while Bournemouth forward Grabban has 20 to his name in a campaign split between loan spells at Sunderland and Villa Park.

Aston Villa possible starting lineup:
Johnstone; Elmohamady, Terry, Chester, Hutton; Jedinak, Snodgrass, Grealish, Hourihane, Adomah; Grabban

Fulham possible starting lineup:
Bettinelli; Fredericks, Odoi, Ream, Targett; Johansen, Cairney, McDonald; Sessegnon, Mitrovic, Ayite

Head To Head

The last meeting between the two sides this season saw Fulham win out 2-0 at Craven Cottage, as Sessegnon and Ayite both got on the scoresheet in London.

The victory was payback for the season's first clash between the two sides, which Villa won 2-1 courtesy of goals from Terry and Adomah in October of last year.

When looking at the full competitive history between the teams, both sides have 23 wins each while there have also been 22 draws between the clubs.

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We say: Aston Villa 2-1 Fulham

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 James 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 nouse to upset the applecart come Saturday evening.

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John Terry playing for Aston Villa in July 2017
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