BIG MATCH PREVIEW By Graham Hill
TODAY’S Championship Play-off Final is a battle between the strong-and-stable versus the unsettled-and-uncertains.
Villa, in stark contrast to last summer, look a solid proposition on paper.
They have new billionaire owners just waiting to write cheques in the Premier League.
And, even if Derby win at Wembley, Villa have what it takes to come back stronger than ever next season.
The Rams, however, probably did not expect to be in this position.
Manager Frank Lampard admits the Play-Offs were not even mentioned to him when he took over at Pride Park – never mind a return to the Premier League.
The Derby County rollercoaster is travelling a little quicker than expected.
They will go into the game knowing that Lampard is a serious contender for the Chelsea job is Maurizio Sarri leaves after the Europa League Final.
Derby’s loan players will not be staying there next season if Lampard is not there.
In fact, midfielder Mason Mount and defender Fikayo Tomori will already be back at Stamford Bridge if – or maybe when – Lampard arrives.
Liverpoool loanee Harry Wilson is already a £25million target for a string of clubs.
Do not dismiss the Chelsea-Lampard link as paper talk, the reports are way too detailed for it to be speculation and someone is giving a running commentary behind the dismissive quotes from the Rams boss.
Derby could go up with no manager and half their team returned to their parent clubs.
Remember 12 years ago when they won the Championship Final and finished with 11 points in the top flight the following season?
That could happen again and you get the feeling Wembley is an unexpected bonus.
But Rams will clearly try and win the game and think about the logistics of Premier League later.
Contrast this with Villa. Smith admitted this week that he was under pressure to deliver promotion when he arrived – if not this season then next.
Owners Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris are not here because they are Villa fans – they want a return on their investment and that means successive seasons of Premier League football.
Everything is in place at Villa, going up will present challenges but ones that can be met.
Sure, Villa also have loan players but also the financial clout to either buy them or target replacements.
Derby owner Mel Morris is also a wealthy man but the Rams will have to rebuild in the summer if they win the final. Villa have already started.
Okay, John Terry may be heading for Middlesbrough with a manager’s job lying in wait somewhere in the near future.
Smith’s focus is purely on Villa. Lampard’s head has already been turned by Chelsea and it looks like he is heading for his dream job, but Smith already has his.