Brentford and Fulham go head-to-head for a place in the Premier League at Wembley on Tuesday night in the Championship playoff final, a match often described as the richest in world football. Mark O'Haire previews...
"The Bees have bagged W22-D6-L9 across their past 37 Championship contests, garnering a barely believable +43 goal difference"
Brentford v Fulham
Tuesday August 4, 19:45
Live on Sky Sports
Londoners edge topsy turvy semi-finals
Brentford overturned a first-leg deficit to beat Swansea 3-2 on aggregate and book their spot in the Championship play-off final at Wembley. Ollie Watkins' composed finish in the 11th minute levelled the semi-final on aggregate, and a header from Emiliano Marcondes put the Bees ahead in the tie four minutes later.
Bryan Mbeumo volleyed in a cross from Rico Henry in the first minute of the second half to make it 3-0 on the night and give Brentford a two-goal cushion. Rhian Brewster dragged Swansea back into the contest with 12 minutes remaining, capitalising on a poor clearance, but the visitors were unable to find a second goal, which would have forced extra-time.
Meanwhile, Fulham withstood a gutsy fightback from Cardiff to book their place at Wembley despite losing the second leg of their semi-final showdown. The Welsh club won 2-1 on the night at Craven Cottage courtesy of goals from Curtis Nelson and Lee Tomlin, as Neeskens Kebano levelled for Fulham moments after Nelson's headed opener.
However, Fulham's 2-0 first-leg lead helped them progress 3-2 on aggregate with Scott Parker's side coming through both contests without Championship golden boot winner Aleksandar Mitrovic. The Serbia international missed both fixtures with a hamstring strain, although reports suggest the striker will be fit enough to return on Tuesday.
Brentford have excelled since October
Brentford have threatened a promotion challenge in each of their five seasons since arriving at Championship level, and the Bees came very close to securing a top-two finish this term as they eye a return to top-flight football. The data darlings recovered from a sloppy start to finish third with Thomas Frank's team excelling since October's international break.
The Bees have bagged W22-D6-L9 across their past 37 Championship contests, garnering a barely believable +43 goal difference, as well as earning a W7-D3-L2 record against fellow top-six sides across the campaign as a whole. Meanwhile, only Leeds rank above Brentford across a range of rankings that include Expected Goals (xG).
However, Brentford are no longer obsessed over aesthetics. The Bees implemented a far sturdier system under Frank with size, leadership and a battle-hardened edge being brought into the club to ensure the side aren't bullied on the pitch, as had been the case in previous campaigns. The pre-match favourites were also the Championship's top goalscorers.
Fulham fail to justify pre-season hype
Following a forgettable one-season stay in the Premier League, Fulham splashed the cash last summer and were well-fancied to make an immediate return to the top-flight this term. As well as ambitious standout signings of Anthony Knockaert and Ivan Cavaleiro, the Cottagers tied both Tom Cairney and Aleksandar Mitrovic down to new five-year contracts.
Scott Parker was given the management gig on a permanent basis after making positive strides in the Premier League. The respected coach added much needed balance to the side, set higher standards and created a more enjoyable training ground atmosphere. However, the Whites have rarely hit the heights expected of them since returning to the second-tier.
Nevertheless, Parker's posse deserve credit for navigating a punishing run-in to the regular campaign. Fulham were beaten by both Leeds and Brentford before earning 17 points from their final seven games (W5-D2-L0) - three of which came against top-seven finishers. That final flourish even put the Whites into contention for an automatic promotion position.
The big question surrounding Fulham coming into the Wembley encounter is whether to bring a fit Mitrovic back in to lead the line in attack. Without the Serbian hitman in the side, the Cottagers thrived against Cardiff during the semi-final first leg as Bobby Decordova-Reid excelled as a false nine with Josh Onomah and Neeskens Kebano pushing on in support.
Bees the team to beat
Brentford and Fulham renewed West London rivalries in their first fixture back from the enforced COVID-19 break. The Bees travelled to Craven Cottage and came away with a 2-0 triumph thanks to late goals Said Benrahma and Emiliano Marcondes, extending their impressive run of results against the Cottagers across all venues since 1998 (W6-D3-L1).
Indeed, Thomas Frank's team therefore did the double over Fulham during the regular season and returned W7-D3-L2 in matches against fellow top-six teams. With a full squad available for Tuesday, Brentford are now rated fair [2.22] favourites to secure top honours at Wembley inside regulation time and end a 73-year exile from the top-flight.
Fulham [3.95] have produced their best work at Craven Cottage this season. Although the Whites were beaten only five times on their travels this term (W9-D10-L5), the Cottagers posted uninspiring W4-D5-L3 figures at top-half teams and failed to even score on trips to Leeds, West Brom and the Bees. Scott Parker's side rarely performed as underdogs.
Play-off finals rarely produce thrilling affairs
It's dubbed the most valuable match in world football - promotion to the Premier League will boost the winners' coffers by at least £170m - and the magnitude of the match can often cripple clubs on their big day at Wembley. Perhaps unsurprisingly with so much at stake, Championship play-off finals are rarely high-scoring affairs.
Since the famous Sunderland 4-4 Charlton play-off final 22 years ago, 13 (62%) Championship curtain-closers have reached the 90 minute mark with fewer than three goals - 48% of those 21 encounters produced no more than a solitary strike, including five of the most recent seven.
Only four of the past 19 finals have paid out for Both Teams To Score backers, potentially highlighting the value in going against the grain and opposing goals. With that in mind, we can combine the two major goals markets by supporting Under 2.5 Goals and Both Teams To Score 'No' for an appealing 2.06 play on Tuesday night. The selection proved a profitable formula in both regular season meetings between the pair.
With goals in such short supply, the opening goal in Championship play-off finals can be key. In fact, 15 of the last 16 sides to notch first in a second-tier play-off final have gone on to gain promotion and having already outlined Brentford up as deserving favourites, it makes sense to back the Bees to break the deadlock before taking top honours.
Taking both selections in Betfair Sportsbook's Same Game Multi markets bolsters Brentford's price in the regular Match Odds market to a healthy 7/5. The Bees boast a formidable W22-D4-L1 return after breaking the deadlock in Championship action this term, whilst Fulham suffered 12 defeats in 20 games when conceding first (W2-D6-L12).
Mark's 2019/20 Profit/Loss
Staked: 180.00 pts
Returned: 200.05 pts
P/L: +20.05 pts