Sheffield Wednesday will take a 2-0 advantage to Brighton and Hove Albion for the second leg of their Championship play-off semi-final after a brilliant performance at Hillsborough on Friday.
Ross Wallace’s crisp strike in the 45th minute gave the home side a lead at the end of a pulsating first period, including a huge moment of controversy when Fernando Forestieri’s strike was earlier ruled out for offside.
Kieran Lee doubled the advantage after 73 minutes with Brighton down to 10 men; the visitors suffered the misfortune of having four players unable to continue because of injuries and were forced into a damage-limitation exercise.
This snap from Helen Jones (h/t Football Away Days) captured the special atmosphere at the famous stadium:
Given how much is at stake in these contests, the first legs can be tight affairs, with neither side willing to give an inch. But both Wednesday, who finished sixth in the regular season, and Albion, who were third in the league, attacked from the off.
Tomer Hemed came close for Brighton, as he got on the end of a corner only to see his header hammer against the woodwork. Then David Stockdale was on hand to deny Wallace, who was bright in the early minutes, with a superb save at full stretch.
A goal seemed inevitable with both teams throwing caution to the wind, and much to the delight of a packed Hillsborough, Forestieri had the ball in the back of the net in the 19th minute. The Wednesday fans quickly became enraged, though, as the strike was controversially chalked off for offside a long time after the Italian’s calm finish.
The debate centred on whether Gary Hooper touched the ball, something still unclear from subsequent replays. Squawka Football showed the contrasting emotions in the aftermath:
Still, the home side weren’t deterred by the decision and continued to play with a greater purpose as the first half rolled on.
Eventually, they did get the goal their efforts deserved on the stroke of half-time. At the end of an incisive break, the ball made its way to Wallace on the edge of the area; from there, the winger darted inside and unleashed a sizzling left-footed drive past Stockdale.
After the indecision earlier in the game, Burnley midfielder Joey Barton couldn’t resist a joke:
The goal gave the home crowd a major boost at half-time, and Brighton, who lost both Connor Goldson and Hemed to injuries before the break, were creaking. Additionally, as Squawka Football noted, the Owls have not lost—winning 10 and drawing two—when ahead at the break this year.
Brighton's task got harder within minutes of the restart, as Steve Sidwell suffered an injury and was unable to continue. Then Anthony Knockaert also limped off, meaning manager Chris Hughton's team were out of substitutes and had to make do with 10 men for the final 30 minutes of the contest.
Raj Bains of uMAXit Football thought it would be over soon, given the way in which the match was panning out:
With an extra man, Wednesday moved the ball at will in advanced areas against their opponents, who had a string of players in unfamiliar positions. Their second goal was indicative of that lack of cohesion, as the home side scythed through the visitors.
Forestieri was again involved, showing great composure on the edge of the box to trickle a pass into the path of Lee. He had plenty of time to pick his spot, and suddenly, the Seagulls were facing up to a massive salvage operation.
As WhoScored.com noted, the goal had been a while coming for the Wednesday midfield man:
There could have been more goals for the hosts in the latter stages, although Brighton seemed determined to get through the remaining minutes with some hope to cling on to. Nevertheless, the Owls supporters were delighted with their two-goal advantage as the referee called time on the absorbing contest.
The Guardian's Amy Lawrence commented on a tremendous performance from the Sheffield club, which played out before a brilliant backdrop of passionate support:
Wednesday manager Carlos Carvalhal will have been thrilled with the application and tempo with which his team played. After an initially frantic spell, they were the dominant force for much of the game, and the swagger they showcased will serve them well when making the trip to the Amex Stadium.
Hughton has a major task on his hands. Not only will the players be downbeat after missing out on an automatic promotion, but the squad also look likely to be depleted—and the confidence accrued from 14 games unbeaten ahead of this one will have been gone.
They're a fine side at home, but it'll take a monumental effort to turn this one around.
As reported by Dom Howson of the Star, Hughton lamented the bad luck with injuries but remained positive about his team's progression:
Carvalhal also refused to accept this one was done and dusted.
"It was a very good game. The crowd helped us and gave confidence to the players," he told Sky Sports, per BBC Sport. "We played good football and enjoyed the game. Today we tried to play with a high intensity over 90 minutes but it's not easy. We are happy but know we have a difficult game on Monday."