There’s something particularly eye-catching about the Championship playoffs, and Monday evening was no different as Bournemouth and Swansea City picked up 1-0 wins over Brentford and Barnsley respectively in the semi-final first-legs.
The consensus view that the winner of the tie between the Cherries and the Bees will gain promotion to the Premier League remains to be seen, but the entertainment value at the Vitality Stadium and openness of the encounter suggests both teams are on a different level to the Swans and Barnsley.
Jonathan Woodgate’s team had Arnaut Danjuma’s second-half strike to thank for their slender home success while Swansea gained an important away win after Andre Ayew’s well-placed finish.
Even though Bournemouth’s advantage saw them bounce back from a three-game losing streak to end the regular season, there may be some angst over the reverse fixture due to their poor finishing in the opening half on Monday.
Dominic Solanke, the club’s joint-top scorer in the regular season and highest goal contributor was culpable in a first half that saw Woodgate’s team threaten to overwhelm the hosts. His header from Lloyd Kelly’s pin-point cross beat David Raya but the woodwork denied the ex-Chelsea youngster a goal.
Despite his involvement in the quick break that led to the home team’s only goal, there’s a sense this tie is far from done against a side that lost only two on their turf in 23 league games and are unbeaten in their last eight games at the Brentford Community Stadium.
By contrast, Ayew’s brilliant strike settled what was a cagier encounter of inferior worth to the game at the Vitality.
The passing stats in both matches immediately demonstrates the chasm in quality: Bournemouth and Brentford’s pass completion of 74 and 77 percent respectively was clearly superior to Barnsley’s 43 percent and Swansea’s 47 percent at Oakwell Ground.
Steve Cooper probably cares less about the means and wouldn’t be remorseful if his team make it to Wembley and win the hallowed playoff final playing this way. One of his side’s 140 completed passes did find Ayew after all, and the Ghana forward scored outstandingly out of nothing.
Perhaps there was a bit of naivete from the Tykes in that move in allowing the West African to chop onto his stronger left foot with little pressure on the ball.
Barnsley boss Valerien Ismael has every right to be disappointed that Michal Helik, the covering centre-back, allowed Ayew cut infield rather than show him to the by-line, Mads Juel Andersen’s slowness in helping out his defensive partner and Romal Palmer’s half-hearted attempt to block the striker’s finish.
The Ghanaian did look slightly offside too when Kyle Naughton released the ball to the forward in the 39th minute, leading to complaints on social media over the absence of technology.
Ayew may have been peripheral for the remainder of the encounter, but his moment of ingenuity is what’s given the Welsh side the much-needed advantage heading into Saturday’s reverse fixture at the Liberty Stadium.
“We knew what the game would be, we felt it would go a certain way and away from home you have to respect that and stand up to it and match it,” Cooper said, as reported by his club’s official website. “I thought we did that.
“We got a real moment of excellence with Andre’s goal and we managed to continue to be strong defensively. “We could have shown a bit more quality on the ball at times, but I get it, the fans were back in tonight and there was a good atmosphere.
“Barnsley are a difficult team to play against with the way they play and there is that psychological thing where you are trying to protect the lead a little bit.”
Both ties are still finely poised, which means there’s still a lot riding on the second-legs to be held at the weekend.
Woodgate will certainly demand better finishing from Solanke as he seeks to navigate a potentially tough return encounter against the London side in the capital.
As for Cooper, the Swansea boss will hope for more of the same from Ayew with the Welsh outfit looking to succeed where they failed last year and make it to Wembley where they’ll be 90 minutes away from a return to the big time.