Fulham and Aston Villa are getting set for the Champions League playoff final this Saturday. The “richest game in football”, as it is called will see the winner receive a boost of around £160 million in their income statement top-lines over the next three seasons. Incredibly, this is far more even than the implications of the Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid, to be played later in the same day.
Over the past decade, both Fulham and Villa have been Premier League regulars. Not only did they consistently maintain their top-flight status, but also had forays into European football, with The Cottagers making the UEFA Europa League final in 2010 under Roy Hodgson. They were relegated in 2014. Villa followed suit two years later, dropping down to the second-tier of English football for the first time since 1987.
On paper, the Villans are far more experience when it comes to the Premier League. They are managed by Steve Bruce, who enjoyed huge success as a player at Manchester United, and has managed a whole host of clubs in the top-flight. In their ranks, they have players such as Ahmed Elmohomady, James Chester, Alan Hutton, Mile Jedinak, Robert Snodgrass and Jack Grealish who have plenty of experience between them in the big-time. They are led of course, by John Terry, who won five Premier League titles with Chelsea and has close to 500 Premier League appearances to his name. Based on experience and temperament, Villa can be considered slight favourites ahead of the game. In the semi-final, they saw off Middlesbrough by a 1-0 scoreline, after finishing 4th in the Championship.
Fulham, on the other hand, are full of young and exciting talents with little to no Premier League experience. They were unfortunate not to qualify automatically, as a 3-1 defeat on the final day of the season came after a run of 23 games unbeaten. They sacrificed their second automatic qualification place, thereby, to Cardiff City. They seemed to be in trouble after losing their playoff semi-final first leg to Derby County, but produced a brilliant performance at Craven Cottage to overturn the deficit. There is no shortage of potential though, in Slavisa Jokanovic’s side. Left-back Ryan Sessegnon will once again be the man to watch, having scored 16 times in all competitions so far this season, and having become the first Championship player ever to be nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year award. Aleksandar Mitrovic, who arrived on loan from Newcastle United only in February, found the back of the net 12 times in the Championship. He is sure to be an absolute nuisance for Terry and Chester. Other goal threats include Chelsea loanee Lucas Piazon, French striker Aboubakar Kamara and the brilliant Norwegian midfielder Stefan Johansen.
This promises to be a tantalizing clash, with both sides trading wins during the Championship campaign at one another’s home turfs. Now, on the neutral grass of Wembley, the stakes are higher than ever. Both teams can score goals aplenty, but can also be extremely miserly at the back. It could turn out to be a cagey encounter, as nobody will want to make a mistake. Victory, of course, means a return to the most-watched football league in the world. Defeat, on the other hand, is the most crushing possibility imaginable, having come within the tiniest whisker.