Championship Play-Off Final: Heartache and Delirium

Championship Play-Off Final: Heartache and Delirium
By Bob Melling
Aston Villa edge the richest game in world football to claim the ultimate prize after beating Derby County 2-1 at Wembley.

Not only do they now share a spot on the same dinner table as the elite, but they have also guaranteed their financial security for years to come.

In a sport that is becoming increasingly bludgeoned by the riches of man, football clubs find themselves competing on the basis of financial muscle, rather than genuine desire.

As more money is pumped into the game and the stakes become naturally higher, teams face the prospect of implosion as they throw the kitchen sink at a chance of promotion.

But while the long-term future of the money-driven game remains uncertain, the short-term praise must be given to Aston Villa, who made their return to the top flight after flirting with the Championship for three years

In an expectedly topsy turvy affair, Aston Villa showed that little extra guile, becoming the first team since West Ham in 2005 to reach two consecutive play-off finals.

But the less said about West Ham’s 2005 exploits, the better. In that final, Bobby Zamora scored the only goal of the game as my beloved Preston North End fell desperately short once again. Play-off heartache is something I am all too familiar with.

Today, it was Derby’s turn to suffer the agony that comes with any sporting final.

After completing one of the greatest comebacks the Championship has ever witnessed when they beat Leeds 4-3 on aggregate just a couple of weeks ago, Derby fans experienced an almighty comedown at Wembley.

As the seconds leaked away and the chances went begging, the Rams could feel the tide of despair creeping across one half of the stadium.

In the end, Derby’s worst enemy was those seconds beating away on the referee’s clock.

At 2-0 up, Aston Villa were in cruise control.

Derby were lambs to the slaughter against an experienced Aston Villa side determined to avoid consecutive seasons of play-off misery.

Frank’s Rams lacked identity in the initial stages as they struggled to find space on an enormous expanse of grass.

Wembley is known for its sheer size, yet Derby lacked width, while Dean Smith’s Villa utilised every inch of the playing surface.

Tricky winger El Ghazi had the beating of Jayden Bogle all day long while the ageing duo of Huddlestone and Johnson struggled to shackle Villa’s dynamic trio.

Whenever the ball broke for Derby, Dean Smith’s troops flooded back behind the ball instantly, giving the Rams little room for maneuver in a congested final third.

But as soon as Derby did begin to retain possession and gain in confidence on the ball, Aston Villa hit them with one hell of a sucker punch.

Villa fullback Ahmed Elmohamady doubled up with experienced winger Albert Adomah to pin back an isolated Ashley Cole. Elmo, as he is affectionately known, took a touch before whipping in a delicious outswinger which pacey Dutchman El Ghazi poked home with his shoulder after he ghosted into the pocket of space between Bogle and Keogh.

Delirium in the claret and blue half of the stadium, as the Sky cameras panned to the beaming faces of Villa legend John Carew and royal Villan Prince William. David Cameron was also present, but strangely enough, nobody could really care.

The mood was further improved for Villa by the sound of the referee’s whistle just moments later. Half-time arrived to Dean Smith’s relief, while his counterpart Frank Lampard would have a very different team talk to give.

Aston Villa began the second half in much of the same manner as they finished the first half. Building up play from deep and pressing frenetically in the final third.

And they were rewarded for their persistence on the hour mark with a goal that El Ghazi can take much of the credit for.

The loanee cut-in at a wicked pace before striking the ball against the outstretched leg of Richard Keogh. The ball looped into the tense air and while it seemed to be headed towards the arms of stopper Kelle Roos, John McGinn snuck underneath Roos, the ball glancing off his head and rolling into the unguarded net.

A goalkeeping howler, Roos left red-faced and Frank left raging. “Why didn’t he just punch it?” You could hear everyone in the stadium ask.

Aston Villa were two goals to the good as the 40,000+ fans began to believe. Dean Smith’s fists were in the air, while Frank Lampard was left furiously barking instructions from the touchline.

That second Villa goal sparked a series of tactical changes from Lampard, as Marriott, Waghorn and Jozefzoon were all introduced within a ten minute spell.

Arguably, these three were Derby’s most effective players on the pitch and a case could be made for all three of them to have started the game.

Marriott and Waghorn ran the Villa defence ragged, making intelligent runs into the channels and bullying the brutish opposing defenders.

And it wasn’t long before Derby deservedly pulled one back. Jozefzoon whipped in a deadly cross, which attacking fullback Jayden Bogle nodded down to Jack Marriott, who swivelled and drilled the ball off the shin of Martyn Waghorn and into the bottom-left corner.

A slight grin formed on Frank Lampard’s face as he made a discreet fist punch. But secretly he knew that his side had left it too late.

Derby piled forward in numbers, but to no avail as Aston Villa managed the game superbly. Mings, whether feigned or genuine, bought precious time with an injury while at the other end, Grealish and co. won cheap fouls and continued to harry Derby’s defence. Meanwhile, the seconds continued to tick away, falling through Derby’s fingers like grains of sand.

The full-time whistle pierced the air as the pained Derby fans filed out onto the concourse leaving behind the jubilant Aston Villa fans who bounced around in pandemonium. A surreal juxtaposition of emotion.

For Villa relief has got to be the overriding feeling. After three seasons of heavy financial losses and last summer’s threat of administration, their promotion to the Premier League provides them with financial respite and player reassurance.

Their crown jewel Jack Grealish will stay and captain his boyhood club in the top tier. Meanwhile, the lucrative loanees may well choose to make their contracts permanent.

The man they call the Dutch Ronaldo, Anwar El Ghazi, has already expressed his desire to make the switch to Villa Park. While dominant and full-blooded centre half Tyrone Mings will undoubtedly look into moving to the Midlands.

Equally Dean Smith will also authorise plenty of departures. Questions loom over Glenn Whelan’s durability at the top level of football and more questions must be asked of the two fullbacks, Taylor and Elmohamady. The pair certainly don’t suit a possession-based setup and have often been the recipients of criticism.

Aston Villa have been ruthless in attack, but have often shown evidence of a leaky rearguard. Over the course of the season they conceded on average 1.3 goals per game and only managed to keep one clean sheet in every four games. The Villans also made the least amount of successful tackles in the division. A dominant CDM, then, is a necessity.

If I was Dean Smith, I would also be searching in the market for a right-sided attacker. Albert Adomah has passed his sell-by date and while Andre Green looks like an exciting prospect, he remains just that and will require time in these formative years. If we study the xG map (nerd alert) from the play-off final, there is a clear weighting of chances taken on the left-hand side. Adomah looked lost while El Ghazi on the opposite side looked terrifying.

But with £170m in the bank and the promise of Premiership football, Aston Villa have the means necessary to secure their transfer targets and address any problematic areas.

Derby, on the other hand, have yet another uncertain summer window ahead. With rumours circulating that Frank Lampard could be off to Chelsea and loan players departing to their parent clubs, the Rams will have to spend wisely to avoid falling foul of FFP. Whatever that means…

While most of us will be counting down the days to the start of next season, we still have plenty of summer action to embrace, which means you probably haven’t heard the end of me just yet.

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