After Nottingham Forest dramatically dropped out of the Play-Offs in the closing moments of the Championship season, Swansea and Cardiff do battle with Brentford and Fulham respectively in the Semi-Finals.
Brentford to win
Swansea City v Brentford
Brentford could have gained automatic promotion had they taken two points from their final two games after an eight-game winning streak; instead, they were beaten by strugglers Stoke and Barnsley, meaning they will have to win promotion via the Play-Offs.
The other upshot is that the Bees will play another game at Griffin Park, Wednesday’s Semi-Final 2nd leg. But first up is a trip to South Wales.
🗣 "This is hurting but tomorrow we need to move forward"
Thomas reacts to tonight's events#BrentfordFC #BREBAR pic.twitter.com/hRTi5KBgOg
— Brentford FC (@BrentfordFC) July 22, 2020
Swansea City were not expecting to compete in the Play-Offs, having been three points off Nottingham Forest going into the final day. But a 4-1 win at Reading combined with Forest’s defeat at home to Stoke by the same scoreline gave them the goal swing they needed.
Steve Cooper’s side owe much to the January acquisition of Rhian Brewster. In 19 starts and one substitute appearance since joining on loan from Liverpool, the young striker has scored an impressive 10 goals – he’s Swansea’s second-top scorer behind Andre Ayew with 15, despite having been available for less than half a season.
In Brewster, Ayew, creative midfielder Connor Gallagher and centre-backs Ben Cabango and Marc Guehi, Swansea have players who are among the best in the division – that is thanks primarily to Cooper’s nous and contacts in the loan market, as well as his reputation with the top young talent due to his success as manager of England Under-17s.
The problem for Cooper’s side, though, is that their best players from last season who weren’t sold, midfield controller Matt Grimes and right-back Connor Roberts, have arguably regressed performance wise – and they do not get much width from the left, either.
Swansea have risen three places, but they are also fortunate – 70 points is the lowest tally any team has managed to obtain sixth spot with since Leicester got in with 68 in 2012-13.
While there’s four or five Swansea players who might be close to getting into Brentford’s team individually, there’s a big gap between their top performers and the rest.
By contrast, there is a much narrower gap in quality between Brentford’s best players and the remainder of their squad – there’s a valid case for the importance of each player in Thomas Frank’s side.
For example, some might identify goalkeeper David Raya as their weak link, due to a couple of mistakes since the restart – but he’s been part of a defence that has kept some 16 clean sheets and has never conceded more than twice, while his distribution has enhanced the Bees’ build-up play from deep.
Brentford have as much quality as Swansea at centre-back, where organiser Pontus Jansson has formed a fantastic partnership with athletic ball-player Ethan Pinnock – and in attack, where Said Benrahma, Bryan Mbuemo and Ollie Watkins have formed an outstanding ‘BMW’ trio.
What separates the two teams, therefore, is that while Swansea are talented but imbalanced and reliant on extreme strength in a small number of areas, Brentford are a complete, balanced side with no clear weaknesses to undermine their star quality at the top end.
In Sunday’s showdown, that fundamental difference should become apparent.
Cardiff to win
Cardiff City v Fulham
When Neil Harris took charge on 16th November, Cardiff City were 14th in the Championship – but after a run of 14 wins and 52 points from 30 games under the former Millwall boss, the Bluebirds are now 5th.
📊 Neil Harris’ Cardiff Record
🔵 30 Games
✅ 14 Wins
🤝 10 Draws
❌ 6 Losses
We were 14th when he took charge, now we’ve just secured playoffs with a comfortable 3-0 win.
What a manager. 💙 pic.twitter.com/VQFWJiXuFt
— The Grange End (@TheGrangeEnd) July 22, 2020
Harris has got a lot right: he learnt quickly from New Years’ Day’s 6-1 mauling by QPR, since which his side have conceded just 18 goals in 20 games – establishing a well-balanced centre-back pairing of Sean Morrison and Curtis Nelson has been key.
The 43-year-old has got the best out of midfielder Will Vaulks, who has shown an impeccable work ethic and proved a direct threat with his long throws – Cardiff have made the most of set pieces in general, with their 28 goals from dead ball scenarios being the most in the Championship.
Harris has made shrewd substitutions, too: Cardiff have scored 21 goals in the last 25 minutes of matches under his leadership, with Danny Ward, Robert Glatzel, Lee Tomlin and Josh Murphy all proving effective from the bench.
While the likes of Norwich, Sheffield United, Leeds and Brentford have all inspired lots of Championship clubs to embrace possession-based football over the last two years, Harris is proving that when used effectively, direct play can still have a place in the modern game.
Cardiff complete on average just 244 passes per game this season, the fewest in the division, while their next opponents lie directly at the opposite end for that metric at 475 per game.
Fulham have always been a possession-based side under Scott Parker, and there have been times this season when they have looked pedestrian.
Granted, the midfield introductions of Harrison Reed and Josh Onomah have helped by giving them fresh energy and dynamism, but still there is an issue with the lack of movement up top.
Aleksandar Mitrovic, being by some distance Fulham’s top scorer, always starts when available and one would expect him to do so in the Welsh capital.
It’s worth noting, though, that Fulham have taken 16 points from six games when the striker has been absent, with Bobby Reid often excelling as a false nine.
They have accrued, by contrast, just 65 points from the 40 league games Mitrovic has started. That form, extended over a full season, would give them 75 points, a tally that would have been insufficient for a top six finish in three of the previous five seasons.
While Mitrovic is brilliant when balls come into the box, he can look languid for large periods, which is surprising for a player that is very aggressive at certain moments. The Serb needs to channel his aggression in a positive way that will help the team.
Defensively, meanwhile, Fulham can leave themselves vulnerable on the counter-attack and with question marks over a lot of their defenders, we could see Michael Hector tasked at times with holding the rear-guard together when Cardiff turn the ball over.
The Bluebirds look good value.
Brentford to be promoted
There is no denying that the Bees have looked below par in their last two matches. But that should not be too much of a concern since each of the last four Championship Playoffs winners were defeated in at least one of their final two league fixtures.
Brentford have been comfortably the best team this season out of those competing in the playoffs. It would be fitting for them to win promotion as they say goodbye to Griffin Park, their home of 116 years.