MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) nailed a 6/1 correct score winner in the Championship play-off final. Can he repeat the feat when Barnsley meet Millwall in the League One curtain-closer from Wembley?
Barnsley v Millwall | Sunday 15.00 | Sky Sports 1
Barnsley make their second trip to Wembley this season following their success against Oxford in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in April with interim boss Paul Heckingbottom hoping to put the seal on a memorable campaign.
The Tykes were sitting rock-bottom of the League One table in early December and by Christmas they remained 500/1 shots to win promotion. But from the 28th December, Barnsley churned out 20 wins from 30 with a W13-D4-L3 record in 20 under Heckingbottom’s watch following Lee Johnson’s departure in February.
The Yorkshire club were the third-tier’s best performers according to the shot ratio rankings from Boxing Day (64%) and showed what they’re capable of in two impressive dispatches of Walsall in the play-off semi-finals.
Despite averaging just 39.5% possession across the tie, Barnsley fired in eight shots-on-target in both legs of an eventual 6-1 aggregate victory against the Saddlers. They were two very eye-catching performances.
The Tykes concluded the campaign in sixth but are shading 17/10 (Bet365) favouritism at Wembley thanks to their outstanding displays in 2016, whilst Barnsley also did the double over Millwall in the regular season in two high-scoring and entertaining contests.
In fact, include the semi-finals and Barnsley boast a superb W8-D2-L2 record against top-six teams this term, scoring at least twice in six of those 12 encounters.
Heckingbottom has named an unchanged side for the last five games and said in the pre-match dealings with the press that he’ll be sending his side out to attack with pace and energy, confirming “It’s pointless sitting back and trying to contain teams. We have to go after them and try to affect them”.
And whilst Barnsley will line-up in a tried-and-trusted 4-4-2, expect the front two axis of Ashley Fletcher and Sam Winnall to press from the front with tricky Adam Hamill and Southampton-loanee Lloyd Isgrove providing width and energy. Skipper Conor Hourihane is given license in midfield with Josh Brownhill protecting the back-four.
Like the Tykes, Millwall also produced two sterling efforts in the play-off semi-finals with minimal possession. Bradford were ousted 4-2 on aggregate with the Lions enjoying just 31.5% possession over the two legs. However, the shots-on-target count was only just won, 8-7.
In truth, Neil Harris’ troops ended the tussle with a clinical 3-1 victory at Valley Parade in the opener. And the Londoners fine defensive back line rarely looked troubled by the Bantams, either.
However, key centre-half Byron Webster was forced off during the final stages of the second leg and losing his tough and uncompromising partnership with Mark Beevers would be a massive blow for the capital club.
Harris has successfully blended a side brimming with youth and experience, epitomised by highly-rated Ben Thompson in the middle of midfield as well as arguably the best front two in the division, Lee Gregory and Steve Morison.
The pair have combined for 46 goals this campaign and have allowed Millwall to play on the break with Morison’s hold-up play and Gregory’s pace and panache giving defences plenty of headaches. But it’s not always been a successful formula against League One’s elite.
The Lions have W15-D6-L3 in their last 24 and include four players that were involved in the 2010 play-off final against Swindon. But their W4-D5-L9 efforts against teams in top-nine positions and W3-D4-L5 record when taking on play-off finishers is a worrying return.
I’m hopeful of goals. Five of the most recent seven League One play-off finals have produced Over 2.5 Goals winners with just one of the eight since 2008 finishing goalless. Six of Millwall’s last eight have featured both sides scoring, as have three of Barnsley’s most recent four.
However, the obvious concern to a high-scoring encounter was the way in which the pair negotiated the semi-finals – minimal time on the ball and maximum efficiency from counter-attacks and set-pieces. Throw in the magnitude of the match and suddenly goals look less attractive.
So I’m going to keep things simple and back Barnsley to win in 90 minutes. I believe the momentum and experience is favouring the Tykes and I also reckon the Yorkshireman boast more match-winners and quality in the ranks to justify their tag as pre-match favourites.
Barnsley v Millwall – Barnsley to win (17/10 Bet365)