Sheffield Wednesday take a 2-0 lead into tonight's second leg but will they hold on to it?
Chris Hughton has expressed uncertainty about how Sheffield Wednesday will approach this return leg at the Amex, sitting on a two-goal lead after Friday’s high-octane encounter at Hillsborough. But the evidence overwhelmingly suggests the Owls will attempt to close out with a clean sheet, making almost no attempt to extend their advantage - at least not until late on.
Since the away goals rule was abolished in 2000, eight lower-ranked teams have travelled with a two-goal cushion from the first leg, and seven of those return games have been goalless after 70 minutes, yet only two finished 0-0. On that basis alone, the case for backing the first goal to arrive between 71-80 minutes at 18/1 or 81-90 minutes at 22/1 is a strong one.
And it becomes only more compelling when you set that general trend against Wednesday’s away record. The Owls have reached the 70-minute mark with their goal intact a dozen times out of 23, completing the shut-out eight times, and their desire to keep it tight will only be encouraged by the catalogue of misfortune that besieged the Seagulls in the steel city.
Hughton welcomes back Lewis Dunk from suspension but remains deprived of Dale Stephens, while injuries to Connor Goldson, Tomer Hemed, Steve Sidwell and Anthony Knockaert leave him bereft in key positions. Whatever the stop-gaps or solutions, Albion will be some way short of their strongest 11 and could struggle to unhinge the Owls’ rearguard via slick combination play.
So some degree of discipline will be key to their game plan also. The first goal is absolutely crucial and the pragmatic Hughton will be mindful that a momentary lapse in concentration kills the tie stone dead in that moment, meaning a gradual head of steam is likely to be preferred over any attempts to throw the kitchen sink from the first whistle.
If Albion do get the first goal, the complexion changes dramatically but that applies almost equally with 20 minutes remaining as it does with 20 minutes gone, so it’s not really in either team’s interests to over-commit early doors. If space is sparse, then both sides might be relying on a set play or a moment of individual quality for a large portion of the contest.
But, of course, the longer it remains goalless, there comes a point where Brighton have to take risks and leave gaps in-behind. Given their depleted state, more demanding recent schedule and not least the quick turnaround, fatigue is bound to hit them sooner. As such, the Draw/Sheff Wed half-time/full-time bet at 13/2 also looks like a sensible play.
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