Aston Villa faced Fulham in the Championship Play-off final, on May 26, 2018, at Wembley, to fight directly for promotion to the Premier League. The winner would join Wolves and Cardiff City who had already secured their top-flight status for next season.
Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce expressed his opinion before the game, that his team boasts considerable attacking quality, enough so to trouble anyone, and pointed out that Villa have beaten everybody in the Championship over the course of the season. But he also warned his team that it would all count for nothing if they faltered now.
The only issue regarding his team’s fitness Bruce had to face was whether Ahmed Elmohamady would recover from his hamstring problem in time to take his place at right-back. In the end, he did and the team looked like this:
Sam Johnstone in goal. Ahmed Elmohamady, James Chester, John Terry and Alan Hutton as the back four. Mile Jedinak was sitting deep in front of them. Robert Snodgrass, Conor Hourihane, Jack Grealish and Albert Adomah supported the lone striker – Lewis Grabban.
His counterpart Slaviša Jokanović had no fresh injury problems.
The Serbian manager pointed out that his team are a young group with probably more energy than Villa, and he was of the opinion that his team must try and dominate the game, and put Bruce’s men under pressure. This was his starting XI:
Marcus Bettinelli was in goal, while the back four consisted of Matt Target, Tim Ream, Denis Odoi and Ryan Fredericks. Tom Cairney anchored the midfield which also included Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen. The sought-after youngster Ryan Sessegnon on the left and Aboubakar Kamara on the right supported Aleksandar Mitrović as the centre-forward.
The First Half
Both teams started the game patiently, but in different ways. Fulham sought possession and tried actively to impose themselves on the game. They weren’t hurrying their build-up play. On the other hand, Villa kept behind the ball in numbers, their defensive discipline was visible, and they looked to play as directly as possible whenever they won the ball. Naturally, in those circumstances the ball was spending a lot more time in Villa’s half.
However, in the 14th minute, some high pressing by Snodgrass caused a mistake by Bettinelli, but Adomah couldn’t get to a good through pass by Grealish. The moment inspired Villa to move further up the pitch and play with more ambition. The game gained balance for a while, but after quarter had passed, Fulham regained control. They started getting into good positions and creating chances, and after Sessegnon’s fantastic through pass released Cairney in behind in 23rd minute, the midfielder went one-on-one with Johnstone and made no mistake. Fulham were in the lead.
There was a controversial moment six minutes later. Grealish was on the ball, shielding space from Fredericks when the Fulham full-back threw him to the ground and clearly deliberately stamped on Grealish’s knee. The Villa playmaker was lucky to avoid an injury while Fredericks was even more lucky not to get sent off.
Both teams went back to their original game-plans. Fulham dominated possession and created chances again, Villa defended and threatened occasionally by breaking on a counterattack. But nothing noteworthy happened for the rest of the half.
The Second Half
After the break Villa started playing a bit more urgently, looking to move forward and attack, but they couldn’t play past their opponents unless they went wide and sent crosses in. They tried that a few times, and had a good chance five minutes into the second half when Adomah found the head of Grealish in front of Bettinelli, but Grealish couldn’t keep his header on target.
But it was definitely better from Steve Bruce’s men, at least for a while.
In the 55th minute, Fulham returned the favour. Some good work by Sessegnon in Villa’s box allowed Target to whip in a good cross, but Mitrović’s header went just wide of the post.
The game livened up a bit as Fulham too started playing more openly again.
On the hour-mark, Grealish produced a bit of magic as he danced past several opponents and into the box, and took a shot from close range but straight at the Bettinelli. A minute later he was denied a penalty appeal after his volley hit the arm of Odoi. Clearly frustrated, Grealish put in a poor late tackle from behind on Cairney and earned a booking.
The moment seemed to have drained the flair out of Villa players. Fulham quickly recomposed themselves and started creating danger up front.
But Aston Villa received a strong boost in the 70th minute. An inexplicably poor challenge on Grealish by Odoi earned him a second booking and he was off. Johansen was then sacrificed to make way for a defender – Oliver Norwood.
With 13 minutes remaining, Kamara left the pitch to be replaced by Tomas Kalas for Fulham, while Bruce took out Elmohmady and Jedinak to bring on Joshua Onomah and Jonathan Kodjia. Four minutes later, Hourihane was forced off by injury and Scot Hogan came on. Soon afterwards, Fredericks made way for Cyrus Christie.
Villa were making their extra-man count in terms of possession and creating chances, but not in terms of goals. They still mostly went wide for a cross but now they were getting there far more frequently and with less resistance. They were also mostly unchallenged for second balls. Towards the end of the game, Fulham were happy with just getting it out of their box.
A foul by Mitrović on Grealish gave Villa free-kick in a very good position with a minute remaining on the clock, but Snodgrass couldn’t hit the target. Several long-ball attempts followed, but Fulham saw it through.
The game was a classic tale of two halves. Fulham dominated the first, Villa charged in the second. The difference was, however, that Fulham made their first-half domination count, which is something Aston Villa failed to do in the second even with an extra man on the pitch. And that moment, that brilliant assist by Sessegnon and cool finish by Cairney in the 23rd minute means – Fulham will be playing in the Premier League next season. Villa wont.
ASTON VILLA: Johnstone 5.5, Elmohamady 6.5 (77′ Kodjia 6.5), Chester 5.5, Terry 7, Hutton 6, Jedinak 7 (77′ Onomah 6.5), Snodgrass 6, Hourihane 6 (82′ Hogan N/A), Grealish 8, Adomah 7, Grabban 6.5.
FULHAM: Bettinelli 6, Target 6.5, Ream 6, Odoi 6.5, Fredericks 5.5 (83′ Christie N/A), Cairney 7.5, McDonald 6, Johansen 7 (71′ Norwood 7), Sessegnon 7, Kamara 7.5 (77′ Kalas N/A), Mitrović 7.
GOAL: Cairney 23′.
YELLOW CARDS: Chester 8′, Odoi 38′, 70′, Grealish 63′, Jedinak 76′, Hutton 86′.
RED CARDS: Odoi (second yellow) 70′.
REFEREE: Anthony Taylor.
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