VALERIEN Ismael believes Barnsley have the least pressure on them of the sides in the Championship play-offs and that playing the semi-final first leg at Oakwell could be an advantage.
The Reds are currently sixth ahead of their last league game tomorrow at home to champions Norwich City from 12.30pm. They will then face play-off semi-finals with the first leg at home on Monday, May 17 and the second leg away the following Saturday. The play-off final at Wembley is on May 29.
Brentford, Bournemouth and Swansea City are the other sides in the play-offs.
Ismael told the Chronicle: “We recognise that what we do in the next weeks could change everything for everyone here. But we keep control of our emotions.
“We have an advantage because all the other teams in the play-offs must go up, but we want to go up. We have a big desire but we have already reached our expectation this season. We are underdogs but we deserve to be in the play-offs. We don’t have big pressure, just the desire to continue our good work.
“That is a big advantage for us.”
Barnsley’s 2-0 loss at Preston North End on Saturday means they are set to finish either fifth or sixth and play one of Brentford or Swansea in the play-offs.
Brentford have secured third place, while the Reds cannot realistically overtake fourth-placed Swansea whose goal difference is 11 goals higher than the Barnsley’s.
Ismael’s side are level on points with Bournemouth, who also have a far superior goal difference, so the Reds would have to better the Cherries’ result at home to Stoke City to finish fifth.
They will play the first leg at home which is usually seen as a disadvantage but, with it potentially being the first game in front of fans for more than year, Ismael thinks it could be a good thing.
“The fans will make a big difference. If we can have them with us and the joy of finally seeing what this team is capable of, it could be another weapon for us to put the opponent under pressure. It will be a new situation for everyone to play in front of fans after such a long time, so it could be good for us to be at home.”
Ismael has collected 73 points from 38 league games since he was appointed in late October with the Reds fourth-bottom and winless in their first seven.
Victory against Norwich would mean Barnsley have equalled a club record for 24 wins in a second tier season, matching the total accumulated by Dave Bassett’s play-off finalists in 1999/2000.
A win would also mean they finish on 80 points, their joint third best ever tally – equal with the total of Danny Wilson’s 1996/97 side who reached the top flight.
Norwich have 96 points from 45 games, with 29 wins.
They secured an immediate return to the Premier League with five games to play then lost their next two to fellow top six sides Watford and Bournemouth.
They then won 3-1 at QPR before thrashing Reading 4-1 to secure the title.
The teams have met twice this season.
The Reds lost 1-0 at Carrow Road – where they have not won in 19 attempts since 1937 – on January 2 with a goal by Emiliano Buendia who has 14 goals and 16 assists this season.
Three weeks later, Barnsley won 1-0 at home to City in the fourth round of the FA Cup thanks to Callum Styles’ goal.
Norwich’s top-scorer Teemu Pukki and star midfielder Oliver Skipp are injured.
Norwich’s manager is Daniel Farke who Ismael knows from coaching courses in Germany. The Reds boss believes his friend deserved to be named Manager of the Year, despite many calls for that award to go to Ismael.
“Daniel deserved the award. Norwich were so dominant all season. He is my friend but I think it is the right choice.
“It’s a great game for us. It is good preparation for the play-offs. We face teams who are more possession-based which suits us much better. Norwich is the right game to prepare the players.”
Ismael was disappointed with the performance in Preston but says it is natural in the game after the top six place was secured, while he is not worried that several of Barnsley’s recent displays have been below their usual standards.
He said: “I can’t blame the guys.
“I know this situation. When I was a player for Werder Bremen, we won the title with two games left which we lost.
“But we told the guys we want a better performance with more focus against Norwich and to finish this great season with another win.
“I am not worried. It is just that we want to have consistency in our perfromance. Preston and Coventry are the only times we were poor for the whole game. Against Rotherham, we were ahead early and we knew we had to win to be in the top six. All season we played a tough schedule at a high intensity and we have to accept that everything cannot go in our direction every time.
“But now we have time to prepare for the play-offs and be fresh. The guys will automatically lift their focus and determination in the play-offs.”