Mark O’Haire’s Play-Off Tips – Sheff Weds v Brighton
Not since 1998 have a Championship side failed to win automatic promotion having collected 89 regular season points but Brighton will need to dust-off last Saturday’s disappointment as they bid to get back on track on Friday night for the first leg of their play-off semi-final with Sheffield Wednesday.
Sheffield Wednesday v Brighton, Friday 13 May 19.45, Sky Sports 1
Chris Hughton’s ultra-organised outfit required three points from their final day fixture at promotion-rivals Middlesbrough to seal a top-two finish but the Seagulls came up short at the Riverside, cancelling out the home side’s early opener but unable to find the winner.
Influential midfielder Dale Stephens’ controversial red card hit the headlines and Hughton has urged his troops to use that sense of injustice to fuel their play-off push. After two previous failed attempts at this stage in the previous three seasons, the club are keen to banish any unhappy end-of-season memories.
Stephens’ absence breaks up arguably the best engine room partnership in the division with the dynamic midfield man missing for only the second occasion this season. Reliable Israeli Beram Kayal is likely to be joined by experienced and dependable deputy Steve Sidwell but it does reduce Hughton’s options with many believing he was keen to switch to a 4-5-1 formation here.
Centre-half Lewis Dunk is also suspended but club captain Gordon Greer is an able replacement to continue at the back in Brighton’s well-drilled 4-4-2 system.
The visitors joint top-scored in the 2nd tier this season with 17 players grabbing goals but they appear to lack the match winners to grind out away victories.
The Seasiders suffered just two losses in 23 away (W9-D12-L2) and held all of their top-six rivals to a point apiece on their travels this term, a reminder of how organised and efficient Hughton’s charges can be, without possessing the necessary X-Factor to truly flourish on the road.
Nevertheless, the guests arrive unbeaten in 14 (W9-D5-L0), with only one loss in 20 (W13-D6-L1) and the unfortunate tag of being the first second-tier side to lose just five regular season games and not win promotion since 1905.
Anthony Knockaert is 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 with six of the last 11 teams to gain promotion via the play-offs finishing third in the Championship, the visitors are confident they can extend that streak.
Hosts Sheffield Wednesday finished 15 points adrift of Brighton in sixth 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 it’s true too that the Owls had been struggling to turn their dominance into results for quite a while longer. In fact, since mid-January, the home side have 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 is 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 13/10 seems more than fair.
And I’ll also back the draw at 21/10. 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.
Draw @ 21/10
0-0 half-time correct score @ 13/10
*Prices correct at time of publication.