Sheffield Wednesday look Wembley-bound after beating Brighton
There could be plenty more twists and turns on the road to Wembley.
But Sheffield Wednesday took a giant step towards reaching the Championship Play-Off final after outplaying Brighton and Hove Albion at a raucous Hillsborough.
It is only half-time in the tie. The job is not done yet. Nobody is getting carried away.
Nonetheless, goals either side of half-time from Ross Wallace and Kieran Lee have put Carlos Carvalhal’s side firmly in control.
It could have been even better for the Owls, who had a goal from Fernando Forestieri controversially chalked out mid-way through the half.
For arguably Wednesday’s biggest match in 16 years, the team did not freeze on the big stage. They rose to the occasion, sensing there is a big opportunity to do something special this year.
Carvalhal reverted to his strongest line-up, making 11 changes to the team who lost at Wolverhampton Wanderers last weekend.
Brighton, hoping it is third time lucky in the Championship Play-Offs after missing out in 2013 and 2014, made three changes from the side which drew 1-1 at Middlesbrough on the final day of the regular season.
Gaetan Bong was preferred to Liam Rosenior at left-back, Steve Sidwell came into midfield for the suspended Dale Stephens and winger Jiri Skalak replaced Jamie Murphy.
When the two sides stepped out on to the pitch, the noise was deafening, the atmosphere was electric and Carvalhal’s players fed off it.
Cheered on by a sell-out crowd, Wednesday made a promising start with Wallace, recalled after completing a three-match suspension, drilling over from distance.
But Brighton’s response was swift and positive as Sam Baldock saw his drive deflected behind by Owls skipper Glenn Loovens following a good run and delivery by Bruno Saltor. From the resulting corner, top-scorer Tomer Hemed watched his glancing header strike Keiren Westwood’s left hand upright as the visitors continued to threaten.
Wallace, a lively figure in the early skirmishes, tried his luck from long range again, forcing Brighton goalkeeper David Stockdale into a smart stop at full stretch.
The big flashpoint of an incident-packed half came in the 20th minute when Forestieri thought he had put Carvalhal’s men ahead. The little forward rifled a right foot shot past Stockdale after latching on to a long punt upfield by Westwood. Forestieri wheeled away celebrating, believing he had claimed his 16th goal of the campaign.
However, referee Andre Marriner, after consulting with his officials, chalked off the strike, deeming the Argentine-born forward to have strayed off-side when Westwood kicked the ball long.
A chorus of boos greeted the decision and it incensed Carvalhal, his coaching staff and the crowd.
TV replays suggest Marriner ultimately made the right call, but it seemed to take an eternity for him to come to that conclusion.
The incident appeared to disrupt Wednesday’s rhythm and flow and Hemed nearly caught Westwood out after the shot-stopper hesitated but Loovens came to his rescue to snuff out the danger.
On the stroke of half-time, Wallace cut inside from the right flank and unleashed a rasping left foot shot which flew past an unsighted Stockdale to give the hosts the upperhand. It was the winger’s fifth goal of the campaign and undisputedly his most important.
Wallace’s stunning opener sparked wild celebrations. It really got Hillsborough bouncing.
‘E-I-E-I-E-I-O Up the Football League we go’ reverberated around this famous old ground. Under the lights, you just can’t beat it.
Wednesday hounded Brighton into submission, playing at a high intensity and closing them down in packs. After almost two weeks to prepare for this fixture, they looked fresher and sharper.
After the re-start, left-back Daniel Pudil fired narrowly wide following good approach play by Lee.
The footballing gods were not shining on the Seagulls, who were forced to use their full quota of subs after less than 50 minutes due to injuries.
A whopping 15 points separated these two sides in the regular season, but it was hard to tell who finished third and who ended up sixth.
Things got even worse for the Seagulls, who were pipped to automatic promotion by Middlesbrough on the final day, before the hour mark as Anthony Knockaert was stretchered off after picking up a knock, meaning they had to finish the contest with 10 men.
Brighton really don’t enjoy their trips to S6, having never won on their 17 visits in all competitions, a run stretching back to 1914.
Buoyed by having the numerical advantage, Carvalhal went for the jugular, sending on Atdhe Nuhiu to partner Gary Hooper and Forestieri up front.
Clear-cut chances, though, were at a premium in the second period, with Jiri Skalak lifting over a free-kick after being brought down by Pudil.
Wednesday maintained their composure and concentration and doubled their lead in the 73rd minute, Lee coolly slotting home after a lovely through ball by Forestieri.
Hillsborough went beserk. Carvalhal celebrated by charging down the touchline.
Not even the sight of substitute Marco Matias having a strong penalty shout waved away following a collision with Richie Towell could dampen the home side’s mood.
There were cries of ‘Que sera, Que sera’ in the closing stages from the home contingent as Wednesday pushed for a third. The club’s dream of getting back into the Premier League after a 16-year absence is very much alive and kicking.
Irrespective of what division the Owls are competing in come next August, this bunch of players have brought the passion and pride back.
They were clapped off and given a standing ovation, knowing they will be the hot favourites to play at the national stadium in a fortnight’s time.
Owls: Westwood; Hunt, Lees, Loovens, Pudil; Wallace (Matias 67), Lee, Lopez (Nuhiu 63), Bannan; Hooper (Joao 83), Forestieri. Substitutes: Wildsmith, Hutchinson, Helan, Sasso.
Brighton: Stockdale; Saltor, Greer, Goldson (Rosenior 40), Bong; Knockaert, Sidwell (Towell 49), Kayal, Skalak; Baldock, Hemed (Wilson 40). Substitutes: Maenpaa, Calderon, LuaLua, Murphy.
Referee: Andre Marriner (West Midlands)