We’re at the halfway stage of the Championship playoff semi-finals and we’re beginning to get a feel for who will be joining Norwich and Watford in the Premier League next season.
Bournemouth took on Brentford at the Vitality Stadium while Swansea travelled to face Barnsley and as if the monumentally high stakes weren’t enough, the return of fans in their numbers added to the tension.
Having pushed the top two all the way and finished strong in third place, Brentford were many people’s favourites heading into the playoffs, but their hopes have been hit by Jonathan Woodgate’s resurgent Bournemouth who edged to a 1-0 victory.
Brentford saw more of the ball than their hosts, but the Cherries were well drilled and efficient with the possession they had. They broke on the favoured visitors with regularity and took the lead ten minutes into the second half when Arnaut Danjuma coolly finished off a counter-attack.
The Bees should have equalised through Bryan Mbeumo but the Frenchman somehow sent one wide at the back post and left his team wondering what on earth they will have to do to get promoted to the Premier League.
As for the other game, Swansea weren’t quite back to their best at Barnsley but Steve Cooper’s team knew what they were doing on their travels.
They were limited to very little by their more expansive hosts, but the ever reliable Jordan Ayew came up with the all important strike in the first half. They now take a one-goal lead into the second leg at the Liberty Stadium.
Barnsley are far from out of it and after a strong season that saw them finish fifth in the Championship table, they won’t be writing themselves off. But Swansea have lost just five home games all season, and will be confident of seeing it out in south Wales and going all the way to Wembley.
It’s hard to predict much based on two cagey games, but it’s arguably Swansea who come out of the first legs looking strongest. Their form towards the end of the Championship season was patchy at best, as they blew a commanding lead at the top of the division and finished some 11 points off the promotion spots.
But here they looked like a team with a plan that is well-suited to knockout football.
They ran themselves into the ground at Barnsley with Jamal Lowe in particular covering the hard yards from a wide-left position, and it seems they are well up for the fight to regain their Premier League status.
Brentford finished as the best of the rest in the Championship by a fair distance and it’s quite amazing that Thomas Frank’s team have never been able to take the final step before now. They may do so yet, but they have left themselves with plenty of work to do when they return to west London.
And as for Bournemouth…well, you wouldn’t look past them if they can negotiate that second leg and make the final. As we’ve seen with Fulham and Aston Villa’s victories in recent years, Premier League experience counts for a lot in the playoffs, and the Cherries have a lot of it in the likes of Asmir Begovic, Steve Cook and Jefferson Lerma.
But while it’s essentially cup football from now on, there is no escaping the fact they finished the league season with three straight defeats. There is a collapse in them, and while Woodgate has done an excellent job in getting them back into the fight, you feel there is a fragility there that may be exposed at some stage.
If we were to pick a winner now, it would be Swansea…but there is a long, long way to go.