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Playoff Preview: Who could Leeds United face if they make it to Wembley?

It’s Aston Villa or West Brom in the final if Leeds can make it past Derby (And that’s a very big IF). 

Tottenham Hotspur v Leicester City - Premier League Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

It should never have gotten to this stage. Leeds United missed a glorious chance to go up automatically this season with lacklustre displays against Wigan Athletic and Brentford over the Easter weekend. Now, resigned to the uncertainty and drama of the Championship playoffs, Leeds need a resurrection, a re-birth.

Many fans will cringe at the thought of the playoffs, as Leeds record since the playoffs began in the Eighties has been four qualifications, three finals, and no promotions. Not the most inspiring record. However, this is a different team with a whole new cast of players, and no one will know the importance of leaving the past behind more than the journeyed Marcelo Bielsa.

Throughout this 2018/19 campaign Leeds have been head and shoulders above nearly every team in the Championship, only to be let down by inconsistency and wastefulness. The inconsistency has to stop, and Leeds need to deliver clinical performances in three consecutive games. For the playoffs, Bielsa must find a way to revive the Leeds we were blessed with at the start of season; hungry, incisive, and ruthless.

It all starts at Pride Park on the 11th May against Derby County. Two-legs against a team who during the normal season Leeds dispatched with ease. But recent form shows that this is a different Leeds team and a Derby side who will be resurgent and confident after a good run of form confirmed their playoff inclusion. Mix in the biggest controversy of the 18/19 season, Spygate, and you’ve got a potentially mouth-watering tie. For the preview of the Derby game, our very own Azeem Siddiqui has got you covered: How Leeds United can get the better of Derby in playoffs.

Derby County v West Bromwich Albion - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Let’s fast forward to May 27th where a visit to Wembley Stadium beckons for the winner of Leeds v Derby. The opposition will be either Aston Villa or West Bromwich Albion. Two midlands teams with recent history in the Premier League, and both with squads more than capable of securing promotion.

Aston Villa (5th): W: 20, D: 16, L: 10, GD: 19, PTS: 76

Villa come in to the playoffs off the back of two difficult games against Leeds and Norwich which ended their record-breaking run of form. After a 4-0 annihilation of Derby County on the 2nd March, Villa went on a 10-game winning streak in the league which propelled them firmly into a playoff spot.

Coming to Elland Road and looking for the eleventh in a row, many Leeds fans were pessimistic about the Whites chances against the Birmingham outfit. What ensued will undoubtedly go down as the most bizarre game of the Championship season, as the teams played out a 1-1 draw that included fights, dives, and walk-through goals. At times the quality on display was obvious, but between the 70-77 minute mark, it was like watching a Sunday league rivalry played after one too many pints the night before. The controversy and confrontation was talked about for days after the game, and if Villa and Leeds meet again in the final, don’t expect anyone to have forgotten what went down.

Dean Smith’s Aston Villa are a team to be reckoned with, and whilst no team should be underestimated, Villa might feel like the favourites going into the playoffs. However, Leeds know they can get the better of them. After being 2-0 down at Villa Park at half time earlier in the season, Leeds came back to win 3-2 in stoppage time with goals from Jack Clarke, Pontus Jansson and Kemar Roofe completing an astonishing comeback. Although Villa will be looking for revenge, hopefully the psychological scars left from their collapse will haunt them at Wembley.

West Bromwich Albion (4th): W: 23, D:11, L:12, GD: 25, PTS: 80

Before Villa can dream again of the Premier League they have to take on 4th placed West Brom. West Brom finished the highest of the teams who were relegated from the Premier League last year, proving that an immediate return to the Prem isn’t so easy. Nonetheless, West Brom will be feeling confident going up against a local rival who failed to beat them during the regular season. Just like Leeds, the Baggies might have a slight psychological advantage over Aston Villa.

Over Leeds though, the same cannot be said. Despite beating Leeds with a swift and incisive counter-attacking system at home in November, West Brom fans will still be grimacing at the thought of playing United in the final. The 4-0 hammering Leeds inflicted on them in February this year was one of the most one-sided and dominant displays of any team in any Championship game this season. Leeds were on fire and West Brom just could not keep up, with a wonderstrike from Pablo Hernandez after 20 seconds setting the pace for Leeds’ best performance of the season.

Leeds United v West Bromwich Albion - Sky Bet Championship Photo by George Wood/Getty Images

Just a week later, West Brom sacked their manager, Darren Moore, whilst still sitting pretty in 4th place. Fans and neutrals around the UK were shocked at the decision, and rightly so, however caretaker manager James Shan has steadied the ship and West Brom have sailed into the playoffs with little disruption.

If I had to guess about who Leeds will face in the final (if they got there), I’d go for Villa. Both sides have enviable squad depth, and both possess experienced players who will thrive under the pressure of the playoffs. This will be a very close tie, but as we’ve all come to learn, anything can happen in the Championship and making predictions is a fool’s game. Just look at my Sky Bet account balance.

First, we need to get past Derby. Assuming we do, and Lampard is left crying on the bus back to Derby on the 14th of May, as a fan, I’m not sure who I’d rather face in the final. Although beating Villa after the squabble of the recent draw would be the sweetest way to go up, perhaps facing West Brom might inject a dose of confidence into Leeds with the memory of the 4-0 still fresh in the mind.

Our form against the top teams this season has been excellent, as Leeds have taken the most points against the top six than any other team in the league this year. It is reassuring to know that the Whites can beat any of them on their day, and fans should not forget this.

Although the past two months have been a bigger gut-wrenching disappointment than when we replaced Brian McDermott with the one-and-only Dave Hockaday, as I said before, anything can happen. We swapped the safe, calm certainty of automatic promotion for playoff tension, but this is Leeds… was it really going to happen any other way?