One of the worst kept secrets in the Championship is out.
By holding high-flying Brighton and Hove Albion to a goalless draw, Sheffield Wednesday demonstrated they are a force to be reckoned with at this level and genuine promotion candidates.
Owls chief Carlos Carvalhal has repeatedly tried to play down expectations, insisting they are ‘outsiders’ for a top-six spot. At his Monday pre-match press briefing, he said three points over Brighton would not make him revise his opinion that there are ‘eight to ten clubs’ more equipped to go up.
He is fooling no one.
Optimism is high at Hillsborough after an impressive sequence of results and fans are daring to dream again.
Wednesday more than matched Brighton, who have now equalled a club-record of 16 matches unbeaten and remain the only team in the top four tiers yet to taste defeat.
It was a serious test of the Owls’ credentials and – just as they did versus much fancied Hull City last month – showed their mettle.
At times, Carvalhal’s side appeared a little flat and tired. Perhaps the busy schedule has caught up with some members of his squad.
But they still gave a good account of themselves and recorded a third successive clean sheet. All that was missing from their play was a cutting edge.
Lucas Joao, restored to the attack at the expense of Atdhe Nuhiu, underlined his superb work rate by closing down David Stockdale quickly in the fourth minute. The Angolan-born player almost dispossessed the goalkeeper, who was at fault for Reading’s leveller last weekend, but referee Kevin Wright awarded a free kick against the forward.
Sam Hutchinson, rested against Nottingham Forest and just one yellow card away from triggering an automatic two-match suspension, also returned to add extra steel to their midfield.
Brighton made life hard for Wednesday, restricting them to few clear-cut chances. In a rare piece of good attacking play by either side, Ross Wallace volleyed wide after an exquisite cross-field pass by Barry Bannan, who was recently described as a genius by manager turned media pundit Ian Holloway.
With 17 minutes on the clock, a clever chip by Wallace released Jack Hunt and the right-back, from an acute angle, was denied by a smart stop by Stockdale.
Brighton looked short on ideas in the final third and rarely caused Wednesday’s backline problems. However, Sam Baldock raced clear on the left hand side and whipped in a dangerous low cross which narrowly evaded his strike partner Tomer Hemed after the hosts briefly switched off defensively.
Although defences were well on top, Bannan kept on passing and probing, looking to find a weakness in Brighton’s armoury. His contribution has not gone unnoticed by the Owls faithful as chants of ‘there’s only one Barry Bannan’ reverberated around the ground. The Scotland international has produced a series of outstanding performances since moving to South Yorkshire. His deal runs out at the end of the season.
As the half wore on, Brighton grew in confidence and showed a little bit more adventure. Hunt prevented Solly March from turning in Inigo Calderon’s excellent low cross as the visitors enjoyed a good spell of pressure just before the interval.
Wednesday have earned rave reviews for their attractive, entertaining brand of football since Carvalhal’s surprise appointment. He has tweaked their style of play but they struggled to break down a strong, well coached Brighton outfit.
At the start of the campaign, few observers would have backed Brighton to figure in the promotion race given their struggles last term when they finished in the lower reaches of the table.
But Chris Hughton has done a great job in turning around their fortunes and the visitors started on the front foot after the re-start, with Beram Kayal drilling a fierce shot from distance over after the midfielder had shrugged off the attentions of Hutchinson and Kieran Lee.
Moments later, Lee threatened to break clear and test the reflexes of Stockdale after latching on Bannan’s clever pass but Lewis Dunk read the situation well and snuffed out the danger.
Carvalhal freshened up his forward line just before the hour mark, throwing on Nuhiu for Joao, who was well shackled by Brighton.
Nuhiu’s gave Wednesday a focal point and his arrival seemed to lift his teammates, with Wallace firing wide when well-placed after patient build up play.
But Carvalhal’s men did not have things all their own way and Uwe Hunemeier stabbed wide from close range after the Owls failed to deal effectively with a Brighton free-kick.
With 16 minutes remaining, Keiren Westwood was forced into his first save of the evening, turning away Sam Baldock’s drive, with Tom Lees producing an inch perfect block to foil March’s follow up.
In the dying embers of the contest, Daniel Pudil sliced agonisingly off target after Nuhiu made a nuisance of himself as Wednesday pressed for the winner.
Ultimately, they had to settle for a point as they stretched their own unbeaten run to 11 in all competitions in front of the biggest league crowd of the season.
Owls: Westwood; Hunt, Lees, Loovens, Pudil; Wallace (Helan 77), Hutchinson, Lee, Bannan; Joao (Nuhiu 56), Forestieri. Subs not used: Wildsmith, Semedo, Hooper, McGugan, Sasso.
Brighton: Stockdale; Bruno, Huenemeier, Dunk, Rosenior; Calderon, Kayal, Stephens, March; Hemed (Crofts 72), Baldock (Manu 90). Subs not used: Maenpaa, Goldson, Ince, Murphy, Forster-Caskey.
Referee: Kevin Wright (Cambridgeshire)