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The richest prize in soccer belongs to a familiar face.
Aston Villa secured a return to the Premier League by beating Derby County 2-1 in the Championship play-off final at Wembley Stadium.
The victory marked the completion of a late-season tear by Villa, whose 10-game win streak from early March to late April coincided with the return of injured captain Jack Grealish. After finishing fifth in the table, Villa beat West Bromwich Albion in the play-off semifinals on penalty kicks to reach the final.
The Championship, England’s second-tier league, automatically promotes the top two finishers and then pits the teams that finish third through sixth in a four-team tournament for the final Premier League spot. Because of the broadcasting and commercial revenue due the winner, the play-off final is colloquially known as the “richest prize in football.” (Or soccer, for the American audience.)
This was foreign territory to Villa for the longest time. Until three years ago, Villa had been one of the few clubs to never be relegated from the top flight in the Premier League era. That changed when the 2015-16 season collapsed under a heap of chaos that began at the top.
Former owner Randy Lerner put the team up for sale, and Villa hired mismatched manager Remi Garde to try and patch together survival with a squad that had allowed its best players to walk the offseason before.
Villa reached the play-off final last season before losing to Fulham, and returned this year under manager Dean Smith, who took over on October 10 and revitalized the club’s attack.
Grealish has been influential in that department, as has star striker Tammy Abraham. But on Monday, two other attackers provided the goals as Villa flexed its depth.
Anwar El Ghazi scored the opener just before halftime, out-hustling right back Jayden Bogle to a cross at the back post:
John McGinn doubled the lead right before the hour mark by beating Derby goalkeeper Kelle Roos to an awkward ball deflected high in the air:
Derby’s Jack Marriott, the hero of his team’s play-off semifinal win over Leeds, helped pull one back in the 81st minute when he took a nice settle touch, fired on frame and caught a fortunate deflection off teammate Martyn Waghorn:
But Derby couldn’t find an equalizer despite seven minutes of added time, and Aston Villa is back in the top flight for the first time since 2016.
It’s been more than just Smith and the attack for Villa, too. Smith has credited assistant manager John Terry, the Chelsea legend and former England captain, for his influence around the club, while additional investment last summer by Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris and Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Wes Edens allowed Villa to avoid falling into further financial difficulties.
While Chelsea’s fingerprints are all over Villa’s resurgence – Abraham is a Blues loanee as well – the same could be said for Derby. Under first-year manager and longtime Stamford Bridge stalwart Frank Lampard, Derby came within a whisper of returning to the Premier League for the first time since 2008, and also knocked out Manchester United in the League Cup.
Derby turned in a spirited rally in the second leg of the play-off semifinals. Down two goals on aggregate nearing halftime, Marriott and Tony Mount scored right before and right after the break, respectively, to kickstart a 4-3 aggregate win.
The Rams have to hope this season’s momentum will carry into next. Villa, meanwhile, will spend next campaign in the Premier League alongside fellow promoted sides Norwich City and Sheffield United.
Joey Gulino is the editor of Yahoo Soccer and moonlights as a writer. Follow him on Twitter at @JGulinoYahoo.
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