Analysis from Barnsley's 1-1 draw at Bolton Wanderers in the first leg of their League One play-off final. Nicky Cadden opened the scoring midway through the second half but the hosts levelled three minutes later.
REDS BETTER SIDE ON POSITIVE DAY
THE WORD ‘momentum’ was mentioned almost constantly in the build-up to this match, with some suggesting it was with Bolton after a stronger finish to the league season.
But it felt like the momentum was more with the Reds by the end of a impressive first leg performance in which - although there was not too much in it - they were the better team and deserved to win.
Gone was the sloppiness that saw them collect one point and concede nine goals from their last three league games. It was replaced by the organisation and energy which made them one of the form sides in England for the previous six months - finishing five points clear of Bolton.
The only stadium in the top four divisions of English football which had seen fewer away league goals this season than the University of Bolton Stadium – with 13 let in in 23 matches – was Old Trafford.
But Barnsley could have replicated the 3-1 wins in their other two away play-off semi-finals at this level - in Huddersfield in 2006 and Walsall ten years later.
That they didn’t may prove crucial in what is expected to be a close tie but there is plenty to be encouraged by from this performance.
In hot conditions, the game did not overheat like in the Reds’ previous two visits to Bolton this season which were bad-tempered on the pitch and in the dugouts. Instead it was just a good competitive football match.
Barnsley did not settle for the first 15 minutes, with the hosts on top and creating some good chances – potentially due to nerves or the impact of as large and raucous home crowd on both sets of players.
But, after that, the visitors - roared on by more than 2,000 away fans - restricted Wanderers to very few chances, while creating several of their own, and won the midfield battle.
They did not press as frantically as they often do, believing that would leave too much space for their dangerous and expansive opponents who instead came up against a compact and well-drilled unit off the ball, who were also dangerous when they got it. Starved of space in the centre, Bolton instead had to fire the ball out to the wings to get up the pitch.
As well as putting some good passing moves together, Barnsley regularly put the ball in the home box, from Bobby Thomas’ long throws and free-kicks even from within their own half - with the tall centre-backs regularly ambling into the Bolton penalty area. The hosts looked hesitant and nervous when defending at times, all of which will give Barnsley encouragement for Friday’s return fixture.
CADDEN NETS FOR LONG-RANGE EXPERTS
Barnsley scored more goals from outside the penalty area than any other side in the top four divisions during the league season, so it was little surprise that their opener came from 20 yards.
It was also not a shock that it arrived from the left foot of Nicky Cadden who, after not scoring in his first 23 Reds games, now has six in 18 since netting at Oxford on February 1 - a real threat from left wing-back.
Four of them have been from outside the box including Saturday’s goal which saw him receive a pass from Cole after Adam Phillips’ corner was not fully cleared, then take a touch and find the bottom right corner.
He then had another shot blocked from a similar distance before slicing a tough volley over in the 90th minute.
Cadden got the better, for most of the game, of Bolton’s right wing-back Conor Bradley - the teenage Liverpool loanee who has excelled this season.
A TALE OF TWO ‘KEEPERS
Barnsley have been excellent when taking the lead this season - winning 26 of the 29 league matches in which they scored first. But they had led for just three minutes when Harry Isted spilt Randell Williams’ low left-wing cross into the midriff of Dion Charles and the ball floated in. It was a mistake by a goalkeeper who has generally been excellent since arriving in January.
There is unlikely to be a change in goal for Friday’s game - despite the very competent Brad Collins waiting on the bench - but this must surely be Isted’s last error if Barnsley are to reach Wembley.
Jordan Williams was beaten by his namesake in the build-up to the goal but, overall, had his best game for some time - getting through plenty of work but still winning some corners after chasing lost causes late on.
Isted did not have a save to make and his opposite number James Trafford was far busier. The England under 21s international and Manchester City loanee has been tipped for a stellar career, after a club record 26 clean sheets this season, and you could see why based on this performance.
He rushed out of his goal in the first half to deny Slobodan Tedic - who had intercepted the ball then played a good pass to Devante Cole before it deflected back to him off a defender - on the left of his box at a fairly tight angle. Bobby Thomas had an even better chance at 1-1. when Adam Phillips’ deflected free-kick turned into a perfect throughball but he tried to dink it over Trafford who again made a fine one-on-one save.
ANDERSEN SHINES ON RETURN
On 85 minutes, the home supporters surrounding the press box were rising to their feet with their arms raised in celebration when ubstitute Dan Nlundulu looked likely to fire in from about eight yards out after Bradley passed to him. But suddenly Mads Andersen flashed in front of the shot, blocking it superbly and denying the hosts what would likely have been a winner.
Andersen’s inclusion in the 11 was a big boost after missing the previous two games with an abdominal muscle problem, and he was a reassuring presence throughout in a fine performance.
Andersen - who came in for Barry Cotter who dropped out of the squad - had made mistakes towards the end of the league season, but was back to his best when his team needed him most.
Alongside him, Bobby Thomas - who made eight clearances - and Liam Kitching also had solid games.
Ex-Trotter Luca Connell - who was booed by some of the home fans - screened the Reds defence expertly, keeping home attacking midfielder Kyle Dempsey very quiet.
Phillips had six shots - none of which were on target - as he tried to replicate his magnificent strike at the same stadium in November. Phillips was unlucky not to register an assist with some fine crosses. It is strange to think that, before the last trip to Bolton, Phillips had not played in a midfield three and instead struggled on the right of a front three.
Up front, Tedic was selected ahead of James Norwood for his hold-up play which was impressive, as was link-up with midfield and strikepartner Cole. The two strikers worked extremely hard, used the ball when they got it, and combined cleverly often, but could not find ruthless finishes when presented with half-chances.
ALL TO PLAY FOR
The tie is now set up for a barn-storming conclusion at Oakwell on Friday.
The Reds, led by chief executive Khaled El-Ahmad, are on a mission to sell out their ground - or at the very least draw one of their biggest home crowds of the season.
Any Reds fan who was wondering whether to purchase a ticket will surely be more likely to do so after watching this Barnsley performance.
Duff’s men will go into that match as slight favourites, having had a better league season, edged the first leg in terms of performance and because they are at home.
But Bolton did win 3-0 there in January and it is likely to be another tense and tight encounter.
If Barnsley repeat their performance from Saturday, they will be likely to reach Wembley later this month.