​It's that time. The ​EFL Championship Play-Offs are upon us once again. After 552 games between the 24 clubs, we finally have the remaining four who are set to do battle for a place in the hallowed echelons of the ​Premier League.


In truth, if you had picked out these four remaining candidates at the beginning of the season, there would be little dissent. Each of the four have ample play-off pedigree, and will all harbor genuine ambitions of lifting the trophy aloft at Wembley Stadium on Saturday the 26th of May. 

Huddersfield Town v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Play Off Final

But, as has been confirmed year after year, play-off football is a cruel and unpredictable mistress. In that sense, here is a potentially useless preview of each side's chances going into the first legs of the semi finals. 


Fulham


The devastating loss to ​Birmingham City on the final day apart, ​Fulham will go into this year's play-offs as the in-form team. Sunday's surprise loss was their first of the year in the league, having gone 23 games unbeaten since their defeat to ​Sunderland on the 16th of December.


Slavisa Jokanovic's side have played some scintillating football since the turn of the year, as was highlighted by the astonishing statistical comparison between themselves and Neil Warnock's automatically promoted ​Cardiff City side.


They have also capitalised on this style with ice cold composure in front of goal, scoring the second most goals in the league behind ​Wolves.

Birmingham City v Fulham - Sky Bet Championship

In the same breath, the fact that Warnock's side were the ones celebrating on Sunday shows the limitations of such a luxurious style of play. Despite their veritable bottle job on the final day of the season, the Cottagers remain the bookies favourites to join England's premier division. 


With a perfect blend of youthful exuberance and experience, as well as the competition's Player of the Year, Jokanovic will fancy his side's chances over two legs against a Derby side who have posted the four oldest line-ups in the Championship this season. The highest was an average age of 30.9...


Nevertheless, Fulham's mettle in a one-off winner takes all situation remains questionable, and whoever makes it through between Middlesbrough and ​Aston Villa would fancy their chances on such occasion. Their play-off record so far will not give fans any cause for optimism either - they are yet to win once in any iteration since the system's induction. 


Aston Villa


Having arguably been the biggest club in the ​Championship this season, and therefore the ones shouldering the greatest pressure, Steve Bruce's side have coped admirably. They'll need to continue in this vein though, as the pressure only increases from here on in, and their fans have the weightiest expectations of all the competitors. 

Ipswich Town v Aston Villa - Sky Bet Championship

They will, however, take confidence from the comfortable seven point cushion they had over their semi final opponents ​Middlesbrough at the end of the season, as well as the plethora of match winners at their disposal. 


Combine this with the enviable experience they possess both on and off the pitch - you don't get much more battle hardened than John Terry and Steve Bruce - and the Villains look well placed to progress. 


With all that being said, a somewhat stuttering end to the season, especially when compared to the run of results their Saturday opponents were able to put together, will be cause for concern. Play-off football is all about momentum. That is of course, until it isn't. 


Middlesbrough


Tony Pulis never disappoints, does he. In a short time, the former ​West Brom manager has instilled his combative style of play on this Boro side with typical aplomb. 

Ipswich Town v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship

Building, as always, on the foundations of a solid defence, Pulis has perhaps surprised his naysayers by progressing the side in attack as well - they scored the fifth most goals in the league. 


They possess two bonafide goalscorers in Patrick Bamford and Britt Assombolonga, while former Villa man Adama Traore can pose a threat to practically any defence in world football, when he is on song. Aside from Fulham, the fifth placed finishers are the most in-form side out there. As such, their position as play-off dark horses seems less and less applicable. 


There's no doubt that they'll go into Saturday's clash at the Riverside with little trepidation, and will revel in the fact that it is their opposition who have the most to lose. Their manager's record against his opponent in the dugout will be helpful as well - in the 12 games the pair have squared up against each other, Pulis has won five to Bruce's four. 


Derby


The perennial play-off participants, it simply wouldn't be an end to the season without the Rams being in contention.

Derby County v Barnsley - Sky Bet Championship

Naturally the next step up in their progression is to actually progress to the Premier League. While it would be fair to say that they have had squads with greater talents than the current one, this may paradoxically prove more of a benefit than a hindrance. 


With anticipation not as fervent as it has been in years gone by, Rowett's man will rightly relish their role as underdogs - admittedly a product of their hapless collapse since January.


In possessing the league's most potent striker in Matej Vydra, they have the potential to score goals at any time, from anywhere - and their record of seven in their last two games will strike fear into the eyes of all their fellow challengers. 

As mentioned, ​Derby have fielded each of the four oldest starting elevens in the Championship this year, but it's equally likely for that to be celebrated as it is to be condemned, come Wembley.


Verdict


Essentially, as is the case every year, the play-offs are anyone's to win. While most punters would predict a Fulham vs Aston Villa showdown, who would categorically rule out a Derby vs Middlesbrough encounter? No one. And that's why we love the play-offs.