Always an occasion filled with anticipation and trepidation, the Championship play-offs begin on Friday night as Derby welcome Fulham to Pride Park. Mark O'Haire previews the encounter.
"Teams that finished lower in the regular season and play the first leg at home in the Championship play-offs hold a poor W5-D9-L10 record since 2005/06"
Derby v Fulham
Friday 11th May, 19:45
Live on Sky Sports
Derby finish with a flourish
Derby secured the final Championship play-off place last weekend with a convincing 4-1 thrashing of Barnsley. Cameron Jerome, Matej Vydra, David Nugent and Tom Lawrence all notched for the Rams who stormed to victory after the interval at Pride Park.
Jerome's strike was his fourth goal in three matches for County and with the league's top scorer, Vydra, also in tow - with 21 goals from just 32 shots on-target, the hosts certainly boast enough in-form forward options to hurt opposition defences.
It's been a topsy-turvy campaign for Gary Rowett's charges; the Rams were in with a great chance of automatic promotion until they fell away in the New Year and the County boss has been pleased with their most recent performances. However, the hosts may have to cope without Marcus Olsson who left Pride Park on crutches last week.
Fulham look to bounce back
Slavisa Jokanovic admitted his Fulham team "didn't play well enough" to win on the final day of the season as the Cottagers were denied automatic promotion at Birmingham. Needing a victory to pinch a top-two finish, the capital club were beaten 3-1 at St Andrew's and never looked like picking up maximum points.
Fulham fell behind to two first-half goals, and although Tom Cairney briefly gave the visitors hope with six minutes left, the hosts notched a third late on to settle matters. Defeat represented the Londoners' first loss in 24 Championship outings since December and confirmed the Cottagers' place in the play-offs.
Left-back Matt Targett limped off for the second match running and now looks to be in a race against time to be fit for Friday. But Floyd Ayite was back on the bench at Birmingham to bolster Fulham's attacking options as they bid to return to the Premier League after a four-year absence.
Cottagers fair and attractive favourites
Derby [3.05] have lost just twice in their past 12 home encounters against Fulham (W7-D3-L2) although one of those two defeats came when the sides clashed at Pride Park in March. First-half goals from Aleksandar Mitrovic and Ryan Sessegnon helped the Cottagers to a 2-1 triumph and the visitors are [2.58] favourites to repeat the feat on Friday night.
Slavisa Jokanovic's troops have shown signs of nerves in their last two outings, narrowly beating Sunderland before losing out at Birmingham, but their wonderful W18-D5-L1 recent record is difficult to ignore. No Championship side has posted better xG ratio returns over the past eight and 16-game samples.
Teams that finished lower in the regular season and play the first leg at home in the Championship play-offs hold a poor W5-D9-L10 record since 2005/06, and with Derby having tabled 10 fewer league triumphs than the Cottagers this calendar year, the visitors make plenty of appeal at the prices on offer.
Stats suggest Pride Park goals
Derby have delivered Both Teams To Score profit in seven of their past eight Pride Park matches, seven of which also banked for Over 2.5 Goals [1.98] punters. In fact, the Rams have fallen behind in five of those fixtures and their once solid rearguard have managed just three clean sheets in 16.
Fulham's contests haven't been quite so fruitful for goals-based backers with only 21 tussles in 2018 paying-out in the Over 2.5 Goals market. Seven of their last 11 away victories came despite conceding but with the tense atmosphere surrounding a play-off semi-final in mind, it might be best to swerve the goals markets.
Aleksandar Mitrovic is the main candidate and understandable 8/5 market leader to score on Friday night. The Serbian striker has been in phenomenal form since joining on-loan from Newcastle, notching in 10 of his 14 appearances.
No Championship player has scored more goals than Mitrovic's tally of 12 this calendar year - that figure includes the opener against Derby when the teams met just two months ago - with the forward averaging a goal every 115 minutes for the Cottagers since signing.
Mark's 2017/18 Profit/Loss
Staked: 172.00 pts
Returned: 181.22 pts
P/L: +9.22 pts
Back Fulham to win @ [2.58] in Derby v Fulham
Back Aleksandar Mitrovic to score @ 8/5 in Derby v Fulham