EFL play-offs: Familiar foes prepare to meet again with promotion on the line


Some familiar faces will renew acquaintances from earlier this season in three play-off semi-finals on Saturday

Saturday promises three blockbuster play-off meetings in the English Football League as some edge-of-the-seat stories from this season await their next chapter.

There have been headlines aplenty in this season’s previous meetings between Leeds United and Derby County, Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion, and Sunderland and Portsmouth.

Now the clubs – all former members of the Premier League – are preparing to meet again, with their seasons, and chances of promotion, on the line and the three ties kicking off back-to-back on Saturday.

BBC Sport looks forward to those games as well as jogging your memory about some of the season’s stories both on and, significantly in some cases, off the pitch.

‘Spygate’ revisited?

Two sides who sparked arguably the story of the season in January meet again at Pride Park on Saturday (17:15 BST).

Then Championship leaders Leeds United were preparing to face sixth-placed Derby County on a Friday night at Elland Road but, in the days before, details emerged that Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa had instructed a member of his staff to “spy” on Derby training sessions.

The saga came to public attention when Derbyshire Police were called to the Rams’ training ground to speak to a man spotted acting suspiciously at the perimeter fence.

No arrests were made and Leeds won the game 2-0, but the fallout continued.

Leeds were fined £200,000 by the EFL for their part in the incident, a sum Bielsa says he paid from his own pocket.

Watch Bielsa’s remarkable PowerPoint presentation

But the Argentine really grabbed attention when he held a special PowerPoint presentation for journalists showing the full detail of how they “watched the training sessions of all opponents”.

Derby manager Frank Lampard described Bielsa’s behaviour as “unethical”, but also joked afterwards that “we do analysis too, you know”.

Leeds centre-back Pontus Jansson conceded there would still be some resentment between the two clubs over ‘Spygate’ when the sides meet again, which will only add to the occasion.

“First of all, there’s been two good football games, especially from our side,” he said.

“We played good football against them and I think it will be very much the same. There should be some high intensity and probably a lot of goals.

“Everything outside of that has no meaning and there’s no point talking about it.

“They ‘hate’ us and we ‘hate’ them probably as we go into the game. ‘Hate’ probably isn’t the right word, but you know what I mean.

“What will be nice is the prospect of seeing two good football games.”

Derby head into the game on a better run of form, despite twice losing to Leeds in the regular season by an aggregate 6-1 scoreline.

Leeds have lost three of their past four games to miss out on automatic promotion, including defeat by bottom-placed Ipswich. Derby, meanwhile, are unbeaten in their past six in a run that saw them edge out Middlesbrough and Bristol City for the final play-off place.

Derby boss Frank Lampard is in his first season in football management

But Rams boss Frank Lampard is paying little attention to what has gone before.

“[‘Spygate’] doesn’t matter,” he told BBC Radio Derby. “If it does, then we are – myself included – being caught up in things that don’t matter.

“It matters how we prepare and how we go up against Leeds. It will matter for the fans – the rivalry’s there.

“That’s the beauty of football in this country, that fans care so deeply and there are so many outlets now for them to vent that.

“But we can’t get involved in that at all. We have to worry about what’s in front of us.

“We’re all desperate to get to Wembley, so an old story should have no bearing on that.”

Will the ‘Hand of Rod’ strike again?

Before Derby and Leeds get their turn to take centre stage, two old West Midlands rivals kick things off in the Championship play-off semi-finals at 12:30 BST at Villa Park.

Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion have had their fair share of headline-making derby meetings and none more so than this season, with one player in particular having a ‘hand’ in that.

West Brom striker Jay Rodriguez has already scored twice against Villa this term, the first of his goals rescuing a point in stoppage time for his side in a controversial 2-2 draw at The Hawthorns in December.

Jay Rodriguez netted West Brom’s second goal at Villa Park in February

Rodriguez appeared to bundle in the equaliser with his hand and then added insult to injury a couple of months later, scoring again in the Baggies’ 2-0 win at Villa Park.

But a lot of things have changed since those two meetings – West Brom have a different man in charge for starters after Darren Moore parted company with the club in March.

That coincided with Villa beginning a timely upturn in form, including a club record 10 consecutive wins to book their Championship play-off place.

It means just a place and four points separated the two sides at the end of the regular season.

The stakes are arguably as high for both clubs with Villa having lost in last season’s play-off final and West Brom looking for an immediate top-flight return following relegation last year.

“We’ve got the experience of last year so we know what the play-offs are about and we’re really looking forward to it,” Villa full-back Neil Taylor told BBC WM.

“We’ve got to let last year [a play-off final defeat by Fulham] slide almost and take the experiences from it.

“If you’re going to try to achieve anything, there will be bumps along the way. We were unfortunate last year and this year we’re looking to go one better.”

West Brom midfielder Chris Brunt is aiming to complete the third promotion of his career, but knows Villa will provide a stern test over two legs.

“They’re going to be two really big occasions – a lot more so for the fans than ourselves,” the Northern Ireland international told BBC WM.

“We’ve got to accept them as two games against Villa, like we did during the season.

“We got two decent results against them, albeit we were a bit fortunate in the home game. Over the season we’ve done OK against them, so let’s hope we can do the same in the two play-off games.”

We meet again so soon

Rounding off Saturday’s play-off semi-final action is the first leg of a potential humdinger in League One.

Sunderland and Portsmouth are no strangers to each other in league and cup this season. But after stumbling in their final couple of games, they have ended up paired together in the semi-finals when many pundits would have tipped them to meet in the play-off final or even achieve automatic promotion.

Only two weeks ago, the sides played out a 1-1 draw at the Stadium of Light which dented both clubs’ automatic promotion chances. A month before that, Wembley was the stage for a keenly contested Checkatrade Trophy final.

Portsmouth celebrated a Wembley win against Sunderland in March but only one of them can book a May return

Portsmouth won on penalties following a 2-2 draw after extra time, but now they are in another tense ‘cup tie’ with the Black Cats.

“We’ll take it as a fresh challenge and a great opportunity to get into the Championship,” Pompey manager Kenny Jackett told BBC Radio Solent.

“It’s a big challenge, but every single player here has to see it as a chance to achieve a big prize.

“People won’t be short of information on each other at this stage of the season, but that doesn’t concern me. It’s about how your own team handles itself and also getting it right as a manager.”

For Sunderland, after successive relegations and financial hardships, the chance to bounce back and spark a revival in their fortunes is huge.

Their capitulation on and off the pitch last season was played out before documentary cameras in Netflix’s Sunderland ‘Till I Die series. Supporters and club officials will hope the planned second series has a happier ending.

Manager Jack Ross, who is hoping to round off his first season in charge with promotion, said: “It shouldn’t be hell, otherwise you’re in the wrong job.

“Is there an anxiety and stress about being a football manager? Yes, of course there is, but that should be the same for any manager at any level because it just goes with the territory.

“But the only way you really enjoy it is if you win it. I know it’s very cliched, but it’s the truth.”

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