Huddersfield Town and Nottingham Forest square off at Wembley Stadium on Sunday with a place in the Premier League up for grabs for the winner.
Helped by a strong second half to the season, the two clubs finished in third and fourth place respectively in the Championship standings and will feel that they deserve the opportunity to join Fulham and AFC Bournemouth in the English top flight.
Last season, Huddersfield and Forest finished in 20th and 17th respectively. This campaign, they have considerably transformed those fortunes. There was even a time when Nottingham Forest occupied the bottom spot in the division before Steve Cooper arrived at the helm. Such is the unpredictability of the division that the two clubs will square off once more for the coveted last place in the Premier League, and their spots in the showpiece are justified after outstanding years in the second tier.
Between December 4 and March 11, Huddersfield put together a 17-match unbeaten streak in the league, and just two defeats have come from 28 matches at this level.
Meanwhile, since Steve Cooper’s first game in charge on September 25, Forest have accumulated 76 points from 38 games, the best return in the Championship regular campaign over that period. Makes you wonder what might have been had the Midlands club appointed the former Swansea boss heading into the 2021/22 campaign.
Forest conceded five goals fewer than any other team during that period, also the two clubs lost fewer games than Fulham and Bournemouth over the same stint.
Nevertheless, the playoffs were not straightforward clashes for both clubs who were tested to their limits. Huddersfield Town were pushed all the way by Luton Town, the Terriers requiring a late Jordan Rhodes in the second leg at the John Smith’s Stadium to prevail 2-1 on aggregate.
The drama was saved for Nottingham Forest’s reverse fixture with Sheffield United, Cooper’s team seemingly home and dry when leading 3-1 on aggregate at half-time at the City Ground before the Blades took the game to extra time, even almost winning the tie in the final seconds of the added 30 minutes.
All of the momentum was with the visitors until the heroics of Forest goalkeeper Brice Samba, who saved three penalties to earn his team a spot at Wembley.
The fact that Nottingham Forest toiled under the weight of expectancy during the normal time will only encourage Huddersfield boss Carlos Corberan, and his team who were one of just a few teams to win a league fixture at the City Ground during 2020-21.
All things considered, that will certainly count for little.
The money and prestige on offer mean that both teams will be under intense pressure on Sunday, even if it is Forest who will be looking to end a 23-year absence from the big time.
Huddersfield supporters will be taking the positives from their last two playoff finals ending in victory, most notably five years ago when they defeated Reading on penalties to earn a first-ever appearance in the Premier League.
WHERE AND WHEN?
Venue: Wembley Stadium.
Date: Sunday, 29th May 2022.
Time: 16:30PM (BST).
Referee: Jonathan Moss.
Assistant referee: Marc Perry, Tim Wood.
Fourth official: Craig Pawson.
VAR: Paul Tierney.
Assistant VAR: Ian Hussin.
LEAGUE FORM (LAST SIX):
Nottingham Forest: WWLDWL
Having proven his fitness with two substitute appearances during the playoffs, Keinan Davis could return in attack for Forest.
Steve Cooper will certainly need the Aston Villa man’s energy, intensity, bullish strength and hold-up play in attack in order to take control of proceedings better than they managed last time out against Sheffield United in the second-leg of their Play-Off semi-final tie.
That would see Sam Surridge drop down to the substitutes’ bench in what is likely to be the only alternation made by Cooper.
Huddersfield are hoping that Danny Ward can take his place down the centre of the front three after coming off injured during the second leg versus Luton.
Rhodes is on standby should the club’s top goalscorer miss out, while Sorba Thomas will almost certainly come back into the team after shaking off a knee issue in time for the semi-finals.
Duane Holmes will likely miss out as Corberan may almost certainly show preference to a back three in order to match the formation of their opponents.
PLAYERS TO WATCH OUT FOR
The teenager has been a first-team regular in Huddersfield Town’s promotion push ahead of their Championship Play-Off final, featuring in 29 of their 48 games.
There will almost certainly be scouts from a host of Premier League teams in attendance at Wembley, with Crystal Palace, Southampton, Everton, Arsenal and Brighton among the others who reportedly want the talented centre back.
The 19-year-old has been a monstrous and colossal presence at the back for Corberan’s side, helping them to 11 of their impressive 20 clean sheets this campaign.
Throughout, he’s averaged a scintillating 1.3 interceptions per game, 1.8 tackles, 4.1 clearances and also winning 65% of his total duels and 64% of his aerial duels highlighting his tremendous all-action defensive style at the heart of the Huddersfield backline.
Where his immediate future lies is unclear, with a host of Premier League clubs scouring for his services this summer. His parent club Chelsea do want him back for preseason in July, with a view to providing him with first-team opportunities next season, but even that looks unlikely seeing as Thomas Tuchel will certainly be strengthening an ageing backline.
Another loan move may be on the agenda for him, as his development and maturity is showing no signs of letting up. A stupendous defensive talent.
Wales manager Robert Page certainly thinks Johnson could play for a top-six Premier League team now and those clubs who wanted him in January have seemingly missed out.
The Forest forward heads into Sunday’s final on the back of a tremendous breakthrough season for club and country. “Brennan is the future of Welsh football and I think he’s top-six (Premier League) now,” Page said.
Arguably the most gifted footballer in the second tier, the 21-year-old holds a superb record heading into the Wembley showpiece, registering 18 goals and 10 assists in 48 outings for Steve Cooper’s men.
Any chance Forest have of entering the Premier League for the first time in 23 years will again rest on his young and broad shoulders.
Exceptional work ethic, athleticism, dynamism, courage and technical ability on the flanks that even most wingers in the English top-flight would kill for.
Johnson is indeed a Premier League-quality player, and he’ll be hoping he is gracing such a prestigious competition with his beloved boyhood club.
Huddersfield predicted XI vs Nottingham Forest: Nicholls (GK); Lees, Hogg, Colwill; Pipa, Russell, O’Brien, Toffolo; Sinani, Ward, Thomas.
Nottingham Forest predicted XI vs Huddersfield: Samba (GK); Worrall, Cook, McKenna; Spence, Yates, Garner, Colback; Zinckernagel; Davis, Johnson.
Huddersfield Town vs Nottingham Forest: 1-2