Aston Villa v Fulham Saturday May 26, 17:00 Live on Sky Sports
Aston Villa built on solid foundations
Aston Villa started the season as ante-post favourites to take top Championship honours and although the Claret & Blue were unable to justify such heady claims, Steve Bruce's side rarely dropped out of top-six contention with a campaign built upon solid defensive foundations.
Only the top two teams in the division shipped fewer goals than the Villans with James Chester and John Terry providing a strong base at the back. Glenn Whelan and Mile Jedinak have performed with aplomb in the holding midfield role with Bruce setting his side up to frustrate.
Villa shaded the Expected Goals count in their play-off semi-final contests against Middlesbrough and rarely appeared in trouble, reducing the Teessiders to just three on-target efforts across three hours of action. However, the Midlands club haven't always found fluency or balance in attack despite their obvious offensive riches with Jack Grealish, Rob Snodgrass and Albert Adomah in situ.
Bruce's only possible injury concern surrounds the fitness of Egypt international Ahmed Elmohamady. The right-back is rated doubtful with James Bree waiting in the wings having performed admirably in the role last time out. Elsewhere, Manchester United loan man Axel Tuanzebe is again expected to miss out.
Fulham firing since November
Fulham make their first return to the national stadium in 43 years after overcoming a first leg deficit to defeat Derby in the Championship play-off semi-finals. The Cottagers became only the second side in 17 to progress after overturning a first leg loss thanks to an impressive performance on home soil.
Slavisa Jokanovic's charges dominated possession but struggled for space at Pride Park in an unexpected 1-0 reverse. However, the capital club wore the Rams down at Craven Cottage and played with fewer inhibitions. The introduction of Aboubakar Kamara from the off injected pace and Fulham deservedly toppled their guests to progress.
Across the two semi-final ties, the Cottagers enjoyed 69% of the ball and won the Expected Goals count 2.50-0.70. Meanwhile, Jokanovic's team pitch up having suffered only four defeats in 30 since the November international break (W20-D6-L4), hitting an xG ratio north of 70% in that period - a figure no divisional rival can match.
Only two of Fulham's expected starting XI have previous experience of playing at Wembley but the Londoners have a fully fit squad to select from with Floyd Ayite and Kamara battling for the right midfield role, along with Lucas Piazon.
A nip-and-tuck encounter expected
Fulham have been made understandable 2.44 favourites for Saturday's showdown and the Cottagers have recent experience in beating Aston Villa having ran out convincing 2-0 winners in their Championship clash at Craven Cottage in February. The capital club were even-money that night.
Only four of the past nine play-off finals have seen the higher-placed side succeed although the big Wembley pitch could give the Cottagers the edge. Fulham use ball intelligently in possession and it's no surprise to see that 64% of their goals have been scored after half-time when opponents tend to tire.
Aston Villa 3.50 will be all too aware of Fulham's strengths, mind. Steve Bruce - chasing a fifth promotion to the top-flight and a third play-off winning promotion - is likely to ask his team to sit deep in order to frustrate, and play on the break. With that in mind, a slow-burner could be in store at Wembley.
Four of the last five Championship play-off finals have also been all-square at the interval (each goalless) and that has been a familiar pattern for Villa this term too with eight of their last 11 matches with top-six sides level at the break. Thehalf-time draw therefore appeals at 1.90.
Oppose goals in pressurised match-up
It's dubbed the most valuable match in world football - promotion to the Premier League will boost the winners' coffers by at least £170m - and the magnitude of the match can often cripple clubs on their big day at Wembley. Perhaps unsurprisingly with so much at stake, Championship play-off finals are rarely high-scoring affairs.
Since the famous Sunderland 4-4 Charlton play-off final 20 years ago, 12 (63%) Championship curtain-closers have reached the 90 minute mark with fewer than three goals - 47% of those 19 encounters produced no more than a solitary strike, including four of the most recent five.
Only three of the past 17 finals have paid out for Both Teams To Score backers, again highlighting the value in opposing goals. Given each of the four semi-final legs involving these two featured Under 2.5 Goals, with just four goals combined, another low-scoring contest could be on the cards.
Snap up the 2.84 onUnder 1.5 Goals and tick'No' in the Both Teams To Score column at 1.78 for two opposing goals angles that fit the profile of the fixture, as well as previous play-off final trends.
Back the half-time draw @ 1.90 in Aston Villa v Fulham
Back Under 1.5 Goals @ 2.84 in Aston Villa v Fulham
Back Both Teams To Score ‘No’ @ 1.78 in Aston Villa v Fulham