“If Huddersfield can cut off the service to Elijah Adebayo at Kenilworth Road, they will go a long way to stopping Luton and ultimately winning the Semi-Final in West Yorkshire.”Gabriel Sutton
Luton Town v Huddersfield Town
Huddersfield to qualify
Luton and Huddersfield both go into the Play-Offs somewhat ahead of schedule, and neither are under pressure to win promotion.
The Hatters were playing League Two football as recently as 2018, while their first leg visitors finished 20th last season, so many predict that the winners will come from the victors of the other Semi-Final.
Town, though, are boosted by injury news: head coach Carlos Corberan is hopeful that key midfielder Lewis O’Brien will be fit to return to the starting line-up for Friday’s trip to Kenilworth Road.
O’Brien brings relentless energy and dynamism, which would be crucial in such a big game: the 23-year-old will be asked to put Henri Lansbury, at the base of Luton’s midfield, under lots of pressure in order to stop the hosts from playing.
Huddersfield might expect to have more of the ball, pushing wing-backs Pipa and Harry Toffolo high up the field, while the hosts will look to get the ball down the channels for Harry Cornick and Elijah Adebayo.
The latter is a doubt with a minor niggle but, if the ex-Walsall striker does start, he can have a huge part to play, not just in terms of his running power and link-up, but also his aerial prowess up against Jonathan Hogg – a 5’7” midfielder converted into a half-back.
Luton, though, will have to contend with the impeccable work ethic of Danny Ward and the creativity of Danel Sinani, who loves to drift in from the right and pick defence-splitting passes.
Plus, while the Hatters might struggle to have the depth to cope with absentees, Huddersfield have finished the season in good form despite being without Lee Nicholls, Sorba Thomas, Ward and even O’Brien at different points, which is testament to both their strength in depth and their head coach’s tactical flexibility.
Huddersfield have defenders in Oli Turton and Naby Sarr who should have the minerals to quell transitional attacks, so their game is essentially about stopping the ball getting to James Bree and not letting him get crosses into the box.
Do that well in Bedfordshire and they should be in a good position to finish off the tie in their own county.
Danny Cowley praises Carlos Corberan pic.twitter.com/cJXRW3dOa4
— Huddersfield Town (@HtfcFrontline) May 7, 2022
“Forest have more consistent players than United, who have relied heavily on Gibbs-White, and while the Blades have got some of the reliable old-guard back fit for the first leg – especially in defensive areas – I think Steve Cooper’s side are rightly favourites to qualify.”Gabriel Sutton
Sheffield United v Nottingham Forest
Forest to qualify
Sheffield United and Nottingham Forest come into the Play-Offs thanks to excellent form after a change of manager.
Since Paul Heckingbottom took charge, the Blades have accrued 49 points from 26 games: a superior record to runaway champions Fulham.
For Forest under Steve Cooper, it’s even more impressive: 76 points from 38 games, more than anyone else in the division.
These respective patches of outstanding form have been catalysed by the individual brilliance of Morgan Gibbs-White for United, and Brennan Johnson for the Reds.
There is a contrast, however. Gibbs-White – on loan from Wolves – has been the Steel City club’s only consistent attacking performer this season, with Iliman Ndiaye a tad unpredictable and Billy Sharp having difficulty staying fit.
It’s not the case for Johnson, who is a big part of an effective attacking unit.
Benefiting from a loan spell in League One last season with Lincoln, the wide forward has the pace to cause problems in transition but also has the trickery and agility to make waves in tight spaces, as well as the unerring composure to produce a finish or a lay-off at a crucial moment.
Johnson has been linked with Newcastle, Leeds and Brentford, so if Forest are not promoted this season, it is likely that he will still be playing Premier League football come 2022-23.
The 20-year-old, who has already won nine senior caps with Wales, benefits from having an excellent wing-partner in Djed Spence and the duo work beautifully in tandem.
Spence has always had the athleticism to get up and down the flank whilst winning most footraces at either end, but under Cooper’s coaching he’s acquired the intelligence to support play where necessary.
The Middlesbrough loanee sometimes veers infield at an acute angle, rather than go on the outside, so as to allow Johnson to stay wide and attack goal in a latter phase of play.
Plus, while Forest do not carry quite the same threat on the left as they do on the right, they do possess a midfielder in James Garner who is developing superbly under Cooper.
Having been a short-passing, deep-lying midfielder previously, Garner has acquired new levels to his game and now not only has a greater range to his passing, but is also demonstrating great ball-carrying qualities which show he is growing in confidence, as well as benefiting from expert coaching.
If Ryan Yates comes back in, after being rested at Hull as a precautionary measure, Forest will have a strong, athletic spine with Joe Worrall, Scott McKenna and Sam Surridge, more than capable of giving Johnson, Garner and co. the platform to shine in the big game.
People saying Coberan has been impressive, but for me Steve Cooper has to be the manager of the season. He took over Forest when they were bottom of the table, and almost took them to automatic promotion. #lufc
— Danny (@Danny39098934) May 12, 2022
“If it’s a Forest-Huddersfield Final, I’m backing the Reds. Steve Cooper’s Play-Off experience from the previous two seasons will count for a lot at Wembley.”Gabriel Sutton
By the predictions above, the Championship Play-Off Final will be Nottingham Forest against Huddersfield.
The Reds are 6/4 to win promotion before a ball is kicked, while the Terriers are a chunkier 3/1 – and there is an argument for the value being with Carlos Corberan’s side.
However, six of the last 10 Championship Play-Off Finals have been won by a manager who has experienced the Play-Offs previously (one of the remaining four was novice Harry Redknapp at QPR), which arguably puts Cooper at an advantage.
The former Swansea boss has tasted heartache against Brentford in the Semi-Finals in 2019-20, then against the Bees in the Final in 2020-21, and will be determined to right that wrong this time around.
Corberan, meanwhile, is comparatively new to the pressures, so his opponent may have the edge.
Plus, Forest look just one notch above their would-be opponents in terms of physicality in key areas, athleticism and ultimately quality.
Johnson has been arguably the most exciting player in the Championship this season – some praise, with Liverpool bound Fabio Carvalho in the mix – and the wide forward may finish his campaign with a stellar showing under the arch.
If Forest turn it on, they will secure top flight football for the first time since 1999.