If you follow European soccer at all you’re no doubt familiar with the concept of ‘relegation’. The teams that finish at the bottom of a league table (eg: the bottom three teams in the Premier League) are relegated to a lower level league for the following season. This is similar to a Major League Baseball team being sent down to the Triple AAA minor leagues or a NHL hockey team being relegated to the AHL. Relegation exists throughout the football hierarchy in most European countries with the teams that finish at the bottom dropping to a lower league.
It also works in the opposite direction which brings us to the English League Championship playoffs. The top teams in European lower level leagues are ‘promoted’ to the next higher level. In the case of this game, the top teams in the League Championship move to the Premier League for the next season which means more prestige–and more money. The top two teams in the League Championship get an automatic promotion so Norwich City and Sheffield United will be back in the Premier League next season. The final team to be promoted is determined by a playoff between the third, fourth, fifth and sixth ranked teams–and this semifinal matchup features the third and sixth placed teams.
Derby County is the host in this game and were the sixth place finishers in the League Championship table. They finished nine points below Leeds United and needed to get a win in the final regular season game against West Brom to earn a spot in this competition. They managed to get a ticket to the dance but the sixth place finisher has not fared well in recent years. The last #6 finisher to earn promotion to the Premier League was Blackpool in 2010 though #6 finisher Sheffield Wednesday did reach the finals in 2016 before losing to Hull City.
Derby County was been a strong home side this year with a 13-7-3 league record at Pride Park (or iPro Stadium if you’re a stickler for branding) and a for/against differential of +20 with 40 goals scored to just 20 conceded. The only two Football Championship teams with a better home showing were Norwich City and Sheffield United–as they’ve already earned promotion this could bode well for the home side. Derby County has only 1 lost in their last 12 games and picked up wins in 4 of their final six. They have also won 4 straight at Pride Park with two or more goals in each victory.
Leeds United came very close to earning automatic promotion but had to settle for third place after a poor finish to the season. Historically, the third place side has done well in this competition with two of the previous four getting the promotion to the Premiership. Unfortunately, there are concerns about the poor form of Leeds United who were winless in their last four league games with three losses. They are also winless in their last four away with three losses. There are also questions about the future of Marcelo Bielsa who could seek ‘greener pastures’ after this season. We’ll go with the form and back Derby County to take the first leg of the semifinals.