Valerien Ismael says Barnsley need ‘the perfect game’ against Swansea City in their play-off first leg on Monday and has laughed off suggestions the Reds are favourites to reach the final.
The Oakwell club completed their league season with a 2-2 draw on Saturday against champions Norwich City so finished fifth in the Championship as Bournemouth lost to Stoke City.
Their tally of 78 points is the best at second tier level since 2000 and the fourth highest at any level in their history.
Ismael took over in October when Barnsley were winless in seven games and fourth-bottom, but won 23 of his 39 league fixtures in charge.
They will now host Swansea in the first leg of the play-offs at 8.15pm on Monday before the away leg takes place the following Saturday at 6.30pm, after it was moved back one hour.
The final is due to be on Saturday, May 29, at Wembley.
This is the second time Barnsley have been in the second tier play-offs after they lost the 2000 final to Ispwich Town at the old Wembley Stadium.
Most bookmakers have the Reds above the Swans in their betting for promotion, although behind Brentford and Bournemouth who meet in the other semi-final.
Ismael told the Chronicle: “We are not the favourites. We are the underdog.
“When you see the teams in the play-offs, including Swansea, we are not expected to be there and we crashed the party. But now we are here and we have big desire to move forward. We want to have no regrets and give everything.
“It is a massive chance for the players.
“We need a perfect game. We need to use our intensity, raise our concentration, put in our emotion and be clinical in everything we do.”
The Swans beat Barnsley 2-0 twice this season, in Wales on December 19 then four weeks later at Oakwell.
The Reds have since signed Daryl Dike and Carlton Morris, who have both made major impacts, then surged into the play-offs. The Swans collected 11 points from their last 11 games of the season, having been competing for automatic promotion until March.
Ismael told the Chronicle: “The last results don’t matter. At that time, we played Swansea twice in four weeks and we were a completely different team and Swansea was very strong.
“Now the momentum is more on our side. We have more options now with Dike and Carlton. It will be the desire now to change the story this season against Swansea.”
Steve Cooper’s team surprised Barnsley by playing long balls, a tactic then used by many side to negate the Reds’ press. Ismael says they are now prepared for that as well as for Swansea to either play their usual 3-5-2 or the 4-3-3 they have changed to recently.
“They were the first team who changed their way to play against us. That surprised us because everyone knows they are normally a possession-based team.
“This season they have just stayed focused on getting the results.
“I think they will adapt again so we have to prepare for different gameplans. They have played a different shape in the last few games so it will be interesting tactically. We will prepare the guys for everything.
“Since we played them in January, we have improved against every style and we are a different team.”
With Romal Palmer and Toby Sibbick likely to play in midfield and central defence respectively, after being rotated recently, the big selection question is over Barnsley’s front three.
Ismael has rotated between Dike, Morris, top-scorer Cauley Woodrow, Conor Chaplin who netted on Saturday, fit-again Dominik Frieser and also Victor Adeboyejo.
“We always give the chance to everyone to play. The guys know that, when we start with a front three, we never finish with the same. They have to be ready to make an impact, whenever they play. It is all about the team and keeping the intensity levels as high as possible.
“The guys understand now that we need to manage the games.”
City have former Barnsley captain Conor Hourihane, who led the Reds to glory in the League One play-offs five years ago.
Their current skipper Alex Mowatt missed the Norwich game as a precaution due to a minor groin problem but has trained this week and is expected to play on Monday.
His fellow midfielder Herbie Kane – who has been out for almost two months with a knee injury, missing nine games – is also back in training but Ismael will assess him over the next four days before deciding whether to include him in the squad on Monday.
The head coach said: “He has been out for seven weeks which is a long, long time. We need to take it day by day. He would give us a different option in midfield but, in the play-offs, every player needs to be at 100 per cent fitness, including the substitutes.”