The European league soccer season is drawing to a close and in England the focal point of the weekend will be Sunday’s Premier League schedule. Manchester City and Liverpool are still alive for the championship with other teams hoping to improve their finish position before the end of the year. There is plenty of exciting football action at the lower levels at well. In particular, the second tier of English football–the Football Championship–will hold semifinal games in their playoff to determine the final team to earn promotion to the Premier League next season. In one semifinal, Leeds United will take on Derby County. Our focus in this preview will be on the other side of the ‘bracket’ as West Bromwich Albion travels to Villa Park for the first leg of their semifinal matchup against Aston Villa.
Here’s how the process works–even most casual fans of European soccer are at least somewhat familiar with the concept of ‘relegation’. The teams that finish at the bottom of a league table–for example, the bottom three teams in the Premier League–are relegated to a lower level of competition. For North American sports fans, this is roughly analogous to a baseball team being sent down to Triple AAA or a NHL hockey team being relegated to the AHL. Relegation also exists at lower levels of competitive football–the teams that finish at the bottom of the League Championship table will be dropped to the English League Two level.
The system also works the other way in all competitions below the top level. The top teams in most European lower level leagues are ‘promoted’ to the next higher level. Specific to this game, the top teams in the League Championship move to the Premier League for next season and with it comes not only a higher level of prestige but an increase in revenue and the financial worth of the club. The top two teams in the League Championship receive an automatic promotion meaning that 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 fourth and fifth placed teams.
Aston Villa and West Brom were only four points apart at the end of the League Championship regular season and there’s every reason to expect a highly competitive series. After Saturday’s first leg the action will continue at The Hawthornes on Tuesday. Aston Villa is completing their third year at the League Championship level for this run after spending the previous 24 seasons in the Premier League. They were the runners up in this competition last season and are determined to return to the top flight of the sport this time around. West Brom is finishing up their first year at the second level of football after competing in the Premiership for the previous seven seasons.
Perhaps they were demoralized by the prospect of another year in the League Championship, but Aston Villa got off to a very slow start this season. They turned things around late in the year and have won 10 of their last 12 games including club best 10 game winning streak. Since that streak ended they’re winless in two with a 1-1 draw at Leeds United and a home loss to Norwich City. During their winning run they also enjoyed a five game winning streak at Villa Park which ended with the aforementioned setback to Norwich City. Villa’s best football was played at home this season so it is essential that they take advantage of having the first leg of the semifinals on their own pitch.
Over the course of the season, West Bromwich Albion was a very effective traveling team with a record of 11-4-8 in their Football Championship away games. They also ended up with a positive away goal differential scoring 34 and conceding 31. They haven’t been as good on the road near the close of the season and have lost 4 of their last 6 away assignments in league play. Their defense has also suffered and they have conceded two or more goals in each of their four most recent away losses. They did win both games against Aston Villa during the season but it was before the team began their reversal of form.
West Brom has a good deal of pressure on the shoulders of their manager–Darren Moore was fired as manager earlier this year and this decision has not been met with an excess of enthusiasm by the supporters. James Shan is the interim manager and his professional future could hinge on the club’s ability to return to the Premiership. Shan is likely aware that Aston Villa has been in exceptional form of late as his team has struggled and for that reason will likely be focusing on the return date at The Hawthorns. Villa should take this leg with a number of goals scored.