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Derby to push Fulham to their limit in playoffs

Sky Bet Championship playoff semi-final, first leg
Sky Sports Football, 7.45pm Friday

Only one of the last seven sixth-placed teams in the Sky Bet Championship have reached the playoff final but Derby can buck the trend by winning their semi-final tie with Fulham.

The Rams have been tagged as bottlers after a series of failed promotion bids but something has changed in the last few weeks and they responded well to the intense pressure of the race for playoff places.

Derby were on the ropes after three successive April defeats and it looked like a knockout blow had been landed when they fell 1-0 behind at home to Cardiff.

However, Gary Rowett's men came up with a gutsy second-half performance to win 3-1 and have grown in stature since, drawing 1-1 at Aston Villa and winning 4-1 at home to Barnsley.

The upturn in results has coincided with a change in formation with Rowett ditching the 4-2-3-1 setup he favoured for most of the season and switching to a three-man defence.

A consequence of that tactical tweak has been fewer opportunities for the Derby's 21-goal top scorer Matej Vydra, who has begun each of the last three games on the bench.

But Vydra has responded well to the challenge, coming on and scoring important goals in the wins over Cardiff and Barnsley.

Rowett turned to Vydra in the first half against the Tykes after wing-back Martin Olsson picked up a knee injury.

Olsson has been a key component in the new system and if he fails to make it, Rowett is likely to revert to the four-man defence and restore Vydra to the team.

Either way Fulham are going to be up against a much more confident Derby side than would have been the case had their paths crossed last month.

The Cottagers are looking far less assured than they were after winning 3-0 at Millwall just three weeks ago.

They followed up with a nervy 2-1 victory at home to relegated Sunderland and missed a golden opportunity last Sunday, going down 3-1 at Birmingham when a victory would have been enough to seal automatic promotion.

It was the first defeat in 24 league games for a Fulham side who have played some of the best football in the division.

But several of their players appeared to react poorly to the intense pressure of the occasion on Sunday and they will need to show a much steelier side if they are going to cope with three more demanding fixtures.

Derby go into the match buoyed by recent results and happy to be part of an occasion which they felt in grave danger of missing out on.

Over 46 games they have not been as good as Fulham. But Rowett's players are getting better at the just right time and, at the prices, they look a great bet to get to Wembley.

Derby to qualify

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Match in Focus

19:45 Sa 26May

Real Madrid v Liverpool

Home Win Draw Away Win
Key stats
  • Real have won just one of their last four Champions League meetings against English opposition
Expert verdict
Real Madrid have lifted the Champions League in three of the past four seasons but they could struggle to retain their crown against a lively Liverpool. Real have been the dominant force in Europe, with last year’s 4-1 thumping of Juventus in the final in Cardiff showcasing their superiority. However, Zinedine Zidane’s men have not bumped into a front three like the Reds’ often - Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane have netted 29 of their 40 Champions League goals this season - and they are vulnerable to the counter-attack.