Analysis from Barnsley's 2-1 win at Peterborough United on Friday.
BIG WIN FOR IN-FORM BARNSLEY
Where Barnsley are after they host Peterborough again on the final day in May will define the season, but the performance in their first meeting and where the deserved win leaves them suggests they have a real chance of competing for the promotion.
The Reds surged up to fourth in the table with a fourth straight league win, while they have won six out of seven in all competitions and five of their last seven away league games.
They now have more points than they collected last season, with 27 matches to play, after a good overall performance was capped by long-range goals from Luca Connell and Adam Phillips.
Michael Duff - who has worked wonders over the last six months to turn this team into regular winners - will rightly insist they stay in the moment and do not get carried away.
But the fans - hundreds of whom had a fun Friday at London Road - deserve to dream of another promotion after being starved of success last season, with this away victory at a top six rival only adding to a sense of excitement.
The Reds must stay consistent through these winter months, including the crucial January transfer window, while shrinking the gap between them and the top two and growing the one between them and seventh place. But, if they show the game management, togetherness and quality they displayed on Friday throughout the campaign, they won’t be far away from the Championship.
One factor in their favour is they have played most of their rivals in top ten away from home this season - with increasingly good results.
After losing at Plymouth and Derby in the opening fortnight, they have drawn at Ipswich and Bolton, and won at Sheffield Wednesday and Peterborough.
They have not played any of the top eight at home yet and, although their Oakwell form had been iffy until recently, that could be an advantage in a promotion run-in.
REDS SHUT POSH DOWN IN SECOND HALF
Peterborough had the second best home record in the division, while no club in English professional football had let in fewer than their four in nine home league games. But that record may have been padded by playing a lot of the lower teams at home, and their recent results had been poor.
The home crowd was extremely flat in this Friday night fixture, as were their team who did not play - especially in the second half - like they were in a vital contest with a possible promotion rival.
Barnsley had been excellent early on, rattling their hosts into mistakes with their frantic pressing and were by far the more intense and energetic side. But they failed to add to their excellent opener and instead the hosts netted from their first shot on target.
The second half of the first half saw Peterborough gain control of the ball with Barnsley struggling to put them under as much pressure, and it was the Posh who missed chances to take the lead.
The Reds were happy to hear the half-time whistle and regrouped at the break, with Duff’s mantra of ‘put the music on and reset’ and ‘one half at a time’ working perfectly as the game was totally different after the break.
The hosts had no chances as their visitors were extremely solid and organised in their defensive shape - despite two injuries which caused reshuffles - while they also sprang out of it to harry and hassle Posh off the ball and give them no chance to create anything.
The home front three of league top-scorer Jonson Clarke-Harris and tricky wingers Ephron Mason-Clark and Kwame Poku caused a lot of problems in the first half but were contained in the second.
Crowned by the clever winning goal, the second half was a masterclass of how to manage an away victory.
CONNELL’S SUPERB FIRST GOAL
Connell has been mainly used as the most defensive midfielder in the 3-5-2 which has brought an upturn in form for the team.
But Duff had spoken to him in the build-up about also contributing in attack and he certainly did that with a superb first goal in English football, firing a brilliant 22-yard shot into the bottom right corner.
The last time he scored was an injury-time penalty for Queen's Park against East Fife in the Scottish third tier in April, in front of 580 fans. This time the crowd was more than ten times bigger and the goal also much better.
It can sometimes be forgotten that Connell is only 21, has come from a much lower standard of football and is being asked to play a difficult role just in front of the defence. That is because he generally does it with such maturity, competence and confidence which makes him a real prospect for the club and an excellent signing.
Connell’s goal came just after a long throw by Tom Edwards, which was delayed as Peterborough’s players and staff complained about him using a towel to dry the ball. While the throw was cleared and they have not directly led to any goals yet, they definitely seem to distract and stress-out the opposition. Peterborough appeared to lose focus in the build-up to Connell’s fine strike.
Edwards was thrown towels and flags by the Barnsley fans to dry the ball throughout the game.
PHILLIPS CONTINUES GOAL RUN
Whereas Connell’s goal was a first, Phillips’ was a fifth in six games.
Home goalkeeper Lucas Bergstrom - a six foot seven Finn on loan from Chelsea - spoke in the matchday programme about his love of playing chess.
But he spilled in a Phillips shot after a surprise move for the second goal which proved to be checkmate.
Barnsley had a free-kick on the left wing and packed the six-yard box, as if it was going to be crossed, but Herbie Kane instead passed it square to Phillips to shoot in from 25 yards.
Duff said later that the move may have come from the training ground, with assistant Martin Paterson generally tasked with working on set pieces. It is those fine margins that will win Barnsley tight games against their promotion rivals.
Phillips is on a real hot streak currently and a huge factor in Barnsley’s good form. He, Connell and Kane seem to have formed an excellent midfield unit which can disrupt opponents with relentless pressing, dictate the tempo of games, shield the defence and provide goals.
EDWARDS AND BENSON INJURIES A CONCERN
The only blemish on the evening was that two more players came off with injuries.
Tom Edwards miscontrolled the ball deep in his half then went in for a challenge which left him clutching his knee in pain. He was replaced on the hour by Josh Benson whose 50th Reds appearance lasted 15 minutes before limping off with a hamstring problem with Robbie Cundy coming on.
It is unclear how long they will be out for but, if they miss some games, then the Reds will surely have to play the back five that finished Friday’s game – Jordan Williams, Cundy, Mads Andersen, Liam Kitching and Nicky Cadden. There are no other fit options, other than Ziyad Larkeche who has been back-up to Cadden on the left, and centre-back Jasper Moon who is now likely to return to the bench but has not played a minute of league football under Duff.
It would be far from ideal to take Edwards out of a defence that had been performing so well, while Cundy is less mobile although more aerially dominant.
Benson has been on the bench of late but his absence would deny Barnsley back-up in midfield and right wing-back.
The Reds squad is being stretched to its limit by injuries but they must find a way to keep collecting points until they can recruit in January.