MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) runs the rule over Friday night’s Championship play-off semi-final first leg from Hillsborough.
Sheffield Wednesday v Brighton | Friday 19.45 | Sky Sports 1
If you’re not a hardened Crystal Palace supporter, you have to feel for followers of Brighton, eh?
Chris Hughton’s charges defied the pre-season odds to mount a major automatic promotion push, finishing the campaign on 89 points – that’s a points total that would have won have seen the Seagulls finish in the top-two in every second-tier season since 1998.
Not since 1905 have a Championship outfit lost as few as five regular season games – ala Brighton – and failed to win promotion but Brighton will need to dust-off the disappointment of last Saturday in a bid to get back on track for Friday night’s trip to Sheffield.
Despite the galling statistics laid out above, the Seasiders can take relevant joy from the fact that six of the last 11 sides to conclude their campaign in third have won promotion via the play-offs and it’s true too that Hughton’s army arrive boasting the best form.
Brighton are unbeaten in 14 (W9-D5-L0) with only one loss in 20 (W13-D6-L1). In fact, take out a hazardous four-week spell that straddled Christmas and the New Year and the Seagulls W24-D16-L1 this season – a remarkable feat made possible by the ultra-organised management of Hughton.
Last weekend’s draw at Middlesbrough was another fine example of the resilience in the Brighton camp and I’m not even certain the squad will have been crestfallen not to have overturned the Teesiders. Knowing victory would have been tough at the Riverside, picking up a point was an acceptable exercise.
Of course, influential midfielder Dale Stephens’ controversial red card hit the headlines but Hughton has urged his troops to use that sense of injustice to fuel their play-off push. The dynamic midfield man has only missed one match this season but his absence does break up arguably the Championship’s best engine room partnership.
Reliable Israeli Beram Kayal will play but he’ll be joined by experienced and dependable deputy Steve Sidwell, easing the impact of Stephens absence. However, it does reduce Hughton’s options with whispers doing the rounds that the Seasiders were preparing to field a 4-5-1 formation here.
Centre-half Lewis Dunk is also suspended but club captain Gordon Greer is an able replacement in Brighton’s well-drilled 4-4-2 system.
The visitors suffered just two losses in 23 away (W9-D12-L2) and held all of their top-six rivals to points apiece on their travels, a reminder of how organised and efficient Hughton’s charges can be. But the lack of killer instinct has potentially cost the club as they’ve been unable to turn solitary points into three.
Anthony Knockaert’s arguably Brighton’s biggest threat from the right flanks and his four goals and four assists across the last seven outings has aided the Seagulls’ promotion push. And it’s true too the guests joint top-scored in the second-tier with 17 players grabbing goal so there’s reason to believe they’re capable of scoring at Hillsborough.
Hosts Sheffield Wednesday finished 15 points adrift of Brighton and warmed up for this tie by resting 10 regulars for their end-of-season clash with Wolves. The Owls were beaten 2-1 but head coach Carlos Carvalhal was more concerned with keeping his well-stocked squad fresh and ready for play-off action.
Previously, Wednesday had suffered just one reverse in 10 (W5-D4-L1) but the Owls have been struggling to turn their dominance into winning results sine mid-January (W7-D8-L4).
Still, sinking Cardiff 3-0 at Hillsborough a fortnight ago secured Sheffield Wednesday’s top-six spot in style and with only two home defeats to their name all season (W13-D8-L2), and only Hull outscoring Carvalhal’s charges as hosts, there’s plenty going in the Owls’ favour.
The Portuguese boss opts for a 4-4-1-1 formation with Fernando Forestieri’s playmaking ability and movement key to their prospects. The Argentine-born striker plays behind the lethal Gary Hooper and both players have been in fine form this season.
Forestieri has 15 goals and six assists – 11 of his 15 league goals arriving at Hillsborough, including eight in his last 11 appearances – whilst Hooper has notched 10 in 12 games after joining the club in December. The former Celtic striker grabbed a brace in that vital aforementioned victory over Cardiff.
Both teams’ strengths are in attack but with the stakes so high, I’d be surprised if either of these clubs attempted to play full-throttle football during the first leg. Both the regular season meetings finished goalless and a similarly cagey affair could be on the cards.
First legs of Championship play-off semi-finals often tend to be low-scoring encounters – the past 12 have produced just 14 goals – and with no away goals rule to incentivise the away side, we might have to wait until the return leg for this encounter to really open up.
The past six duels have delivered fewer than three goals and with Wednesday scoring just twice before the interval in their last 15 games – 10 of which were 0-0 at half-time – backing a repeat here at 31/20 (Coral) seems more than fair.
I’ll also take the draw at 9/4 (Betfred). Home teams have claimed just two triumphs in the previous 10 first legs of Championship play-off semi-finals whilst together these two teams picked up 34/72 (47%) regular season draws, including 15 from 20 games against fellow top-six sides.
And whilst we’re at it, I’ll go the whole hog by chucking speculative quids at the correct score market with 0-0 (13/2 William Hill) and 1-1 (23/4 888) standing out – after all, both sides have scored in five Brighton away days on the spin, as well as five in seven for the Owls.
Sheffield Wednesday v Brighton – Draw (9/4 Betfred)
Sheffield Wednesday v Brighton – 0-0 half-time correct score (31/20 Coral)
Sheffield Wednesday v Brighton – 0-0 correct score (13/2 William Hill)
Sheffield Wednesday v Brighton – 1-1 correct score (23/4 888)