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Fulham completes strong crop of promoted teams returning to Premier League

Fulham beat Aston Villa on Tom Cairney’s goal in the promotion playoff final. (Reuters)

For the seventh time in the English Premier League’s 26-year history, three EPL veterans will be coming back to the big time.

Fulham beat Aston Villa 1-0 in Saturday’s promotion playoff final at Wembley to join Cardiff City and Wolverhampton Wanderers back in the top flight for the 2018-19 season. And together, those three make up one of the strongest newly-promoted cohorts in recent memory. All three could stay up – just as Newcastle, Brighton and Huddersfield did this past year. And all three will bring to the Premier League their own unique flavor.

Fulham 1, Aston Villa 0

Fulham was the last of the three to claim its Premier League place, but far from the least deserving. It ascended into third place with a 23-match unbeaten run. On balance, it was the second-best team in the division. And it showed why on Saturday.

The lone goal was produced by Ryan Sessegnon and Tom Cairney, the two protagonists all season long. The former, at 17 years old, was named the Championship player of the season. He’s one of the hottest prospects in England. And he fed the latter with a clever through-ball that split the Villa defense:


Fulham dominated the opening 45 minutes with its customarily aesthetic football. It slipped in the second half, and had to hold on for the final quarter of the game after Denis Odoi’s red card. But the defense – anchored by American center back Tim Ream, who has been excellent all year – did just that.

How will Fulham fare in the Premier League?

Slavisa Jokanovic has built a team well-equipped for its first season in the top flight since 2013-14. The big question is: How similar will the current squad look to the one that takes Premier League fields in August?

Sessegnon will be the subject of $30-plus million bids. Cairney should get interest from the top half of the league. Aleksandar Mitrovic took the Cottagers to another level in the Championship, but was on loan from Newcastle.

This is a young, deep team, though. It doesn’t have the riches of one of the clubs going up alongside it, but it has an identity and talent. It therefore has the resources to stay in the Premier League.

Cardiff City

Cardiff, in a few senses, has no right to be here – not because its success was undeserved, but because it was completely unforeseen.

When Neil Warnock took charge a few months into the 2016-17 season, the Bluebirds were in the Championship’s relegation zone. They hadn’t even tempted fans with thoughts of promotion since falling out of the Premier League in 2014. Owner Vincent Tan had become a villain. The club was in disarray.

But Warnock did what he does best. He transformed a ragtag group into a coherent, committed unit and turned things around. His football isn’t pleasing to the eye, and never has been. But it’s effective. In Warnock’s first full season – this past one – Cardiff had the joint-best defense in the division. And although it bagged the second-fewest goals of the top six, it held off Fulham for second.

Cardiff has no proven goalpoacher. It has no consistent creator – only the puzzling Junior Hoilett. In general, it has mid-table Championship talent. That’s where it finished in 2016-17 – ironically, one spot ahead of Villa and three ahead of Wolves. And that’s where it was expected to finish this time around.

So it will be not just a favorite but the favorite for relegation. Warnock, after all, has earned more promotions than any manager in the history of the English Football League pyramid, but hasn’t had much success once he’s reached the pinnacle. The sport has passed his long-ball tactics by. And the Prem has probably passed Cardiff’s level of play.

But Warnock and his players have nothing other than beat unkind odds over the past 20 months. So why stop now?

Wolves

Wolves, on the other hand, are one of the best newly-promoted outfits the Premier League has ever seen. They probably would’ve been a mid-table Premier League side this year on a Championship budget – or at least their version of a Championship budget. Now they’ll add Premier League TV and commercial money to that budget, and should set themselves up for a long top flight stay.

Just five years ago, Wolves were in League One, having suffered two consecutive relegations. But they bounced right back. Two years later, they were bought by a shady Chinese consortium – a consortium that also owned a minority stake in super-agent Jorge Mendes’ agency. And suddenly, Wolves weren’t just outspending Championship foes; they were spending ludicrous sums on Mendes’ clients.

Ruben Neves is the foremost example. Wolves bought the 21-year-old Portuguese international from Porto for $21 million, a club- and league-record fee. He was every bit as good as expected, never mind that a Champions League-caliber central midfielder seemed strangely out of place playing at locales such as Barnsley and Burton.

And he wasn’t the only one. Diego Jota was loaned and (soon will be) bought from Atletico Madrid. There are other Portuguese stars. There is center back Romain Saiss, purchased from Ligue 1 in 2016. There are pre-Mendes FC holdovers who’ve raised their games, like center back Conor Coady. And they’re all managed by Nuno Espirito Santo, who, at 44, has already managed both Porto and Valencia, and who – you guessed it – is also a Mendes client.

They play the beautiful game, too, in a 3-4-3 alignment that Nuno has installed. They’ll make the Premier League more entertaining. And they’ll make it better, too.

Early 2018-19 Premier League relegation odds

The 10 teams most likely to drop back down to the Championship, from most to least likely, are:

1. Cardiff
2. Huddersfield
3. Fulham
4. Bournemouth
5. Watford
6. Brighton
7. Burnley
8. West Ham
9. Wolves
10. Southampton

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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