The 2014 Football Championship play-offs will determine who will join Leicester City and Burnley in the Premier League in 2014-15, with two semi-finals being played out between May 8 and May 12 before the grand final at Wembley stadium later this month.
Favourites Derby County did what they had to do on Thursday, recording a 2-1 victory at Brighton & Hove Albion to take a strong advantage into their second leg.
|May 8||Semi-final, first leg||Brighton||1-2||Derby|
|May 9||Semi-final, first leg||Wigan||0-0||QPR|
|May 11||Semi-final, second leg||Derby||4-1||Brighton|
|May 12||Semi-final, second leg||QPR||2-1||Wigan|
Jesse Lingard gave the hosts an early lead before Chris Martin equalised from the spot. A freak own-goal from Tomasz Kuszczak then gave the visitors the lead just ahead of half-time and, despite a furious second half from Brighton, Derby held on for the win.
As shared by The Telegraph's Paul Hayward, this match was a clash of styles, and the hosts perhaps deserved better than a one-goal loss:
Some sweet football from Brighton but Derby found an answer to ball retention with counter-attacks. Styles make fights. 1-2 h-t— Paul Hayward (@_PaulHayward) May 8, 2014
Lingard tormented Derby, cutting from the wing from the get-go, and it was no surprise the youngster opened the scoring, connecting with a cross from Inigo Calderon.
The hosts—who finished the season with 13 points less than Derby—couldn't enjoy their lead for very long, as Matthew Upton came flying in with a late tackle on Craig Forsyth and gave the official no choice but to point to the spot.
Martin sent Kuszczak the wrong way, and Derby were surprisingly back on level terms.
Things got worse for Albion when a shot aimed at the crossbar ricocheted off Kuszczak and into the back of the net, giving the visitors an undeserving lead.
According to Fox Soccer Trax, Brighton weren't deserving of such a score going into half-time:
HT Brighton 1 (Lingard) Derby 2 (Martin, Kuszczak own goal) Hard on Brighton after a very good start; Derby has rebounded very well— FOX Soccer Trax (@FOXSoccerTrax) May 8, 2014
The Seagulls went looking for an equaliser in the second half, dominating possession and getting plenty of crosses into the box, but a sensational performance from Lee Grant kept the hosts at bay.
And when Grant was finally beaten, that same crossbar would come back to haunt Albion once again. Stephen Ward and Lingard both came close to scoring for Brighton in the last 20 minutes. But the score remained the same throughout the second half, setting Derby up in excellent position to make it to the final.
Derby's fantastic season has been a surprise for many, not the least the players themselves. Match-winner Grant told the Derby Telegraph's Chris Watson as much ahead of the match:
I’m absolutely loving it.
If you had told me at the start of the season that we’d finish third in the league, with a club record points total and be top scorers in the division, I might not have believed you!
I’m really proud to be a part of what’s going on at the minute and full of excitement about the future.
And headed into the second leg of the play-off semi-final with a one-goal lead, that dream season looks set to continue.
On Friday, Wigan and Queens Park Rangers played to a much less memorable scoreless draw. Wigan looked the strong sider, controlling 58 percent of possession and managing three shots on goal to just one for QPR.
Which team will win the 2014 Championship play-offs?
Derby confirmed their place in the play-off final with an utterly convincing 4-1 home win at Pride Park on Sunday which condemned Brighton to another season in the Championship.
Coming into the game as favourites thanks to their first leg win, Derby were very impressive from minute one as they dominated proceedings.
Will Hughes opened the scoring with a marvellous left-footed back-heeled finish on the end of a terrific cross from Jamie Ward in the 34th minute.
Any nerves in the stadium were calmed by that strike as the Rams now had a comfortable two-goal aggregate lead.
Derby top-scorer Chris Martin made sure of the win when he bagged the second 10 minutes into the second half, showing his poaching skills as he poked home from close range after Ward's header.
George Thorne fired home a long-range volley for the third after 75 minutes and Jeff Hendrick completed the rout 10 minutes later with a smart finish from inside the box.
The only blot on Derby's evening was Kazenga Lua Lua's 89th minute consolation but Steve McClaren will be overjoyed with his side's performance which marks them out as the team to beat in Wembley's final.
Next up, McClaren's side will have to face QPR for the much-coveted final spot in the Premier League. Of course, the former England international team manager coached at QPR earlier in the season.