In the end, an entirely predictable first leg stalemate perfectly exemplified the home team’s entertaining way of scoring too few goals and the away team’s dreadful methods of keeping them out.
Backed by a raucous home crowd – which is far from a given with a noon kick off which generally mitigates very badly against atmosphere – Town probed the Owls’ impressive defences for virtually the whole game but were unable to create enough chances to turn their dominance in to a first leg lead.
Neither did their overwhelming possession create the type of intensive pressure under which teams can crumble, but their superiority with the ball did completely nullify the visitors’ major players and substitute keeper Coleman had an easy and less than eventful afternoon; he put in a couple of dives as he watched two long range efforts from Reach and Bannon veer off target.
The only other moment of danger Wednesday created was a decent cross which the excellent Kachunga headed over before Reach could pounce.
For the most part, Wednesday were content to stifle Town’s threat and rarely wobbled in their dull but tactically astute endeavours. On the one occasion Town got a lucky bounce in the area, Westwood pulled off an excellent save from Wells (he also tipped over an imaginatively unthreatening lob from the same player earlier).
An off balance Brown diverted a Wells flick on on to the bar in the first half, but Westwood was to be relatively untroubled as his 10 colleagues largely nullified their far more expansive hosts once the ball got to the final third.
On the positive side, Town looked much more like the team which has over achieved significantly over the season than it had towards the end of the campaign when genuine fears of burn out were regularly levelled at some desperately poor displays.
Fielding by far their strongest 11, the Terriers were boosted by the return of Kachunga who worked tirelessly before being substituted. He made life very difficult for Wednesday’s otherwise very composed defenders and Smith (who had gone off the boil perhaps more than any other player) returned to much better form with his regular partner in front of him.
Mooy and Hogg’s partnership flourished again, with Hogg’s energy superbly dovetailing with the Australian’s return to form, and, in front of them, Brown showed flashes of the quality which may yet fire Town to Wembley; particularly if Carvalhal’s stifling tactics are loosened at Hillsborough.
Though rarely stretched, Town’s defending – from back to front – was unrecognisable from the messy, mistake strewn ill discipline at the back end of the season with Hefele and Schindler easily containing a strangely quiet Forestieri who looked like he has been restored too early following injury problems. Fletcher’s aerial threat was almost entirely neutered and once those two made way for Rhodes and Winnall (oh for Wednesday’s bench!) the visitors had given up any pretence of wanting to establish a first leg lead.
With the game being refereed reasonably well, Wednesday were unable to call upon the outrageous fortune which lead to their regular season double over Town – close encounters which should have yielded 2 points a piece – though Jack Hunt got away with a fair amount for only one yellow card and the farcical handling of a situation where a Wednesday player handled the ball in the wall at a free kick before feigning facial injury was pretty questionable.
Collin Quaner provided a comedy moment with his first touch, which saw an attempt at control deflect off both of his uncoordinated legs in to touch, and little else which rather exposes Town’s main problem – beyond the 11 on duty from the start, there is little game changing ability on the bench; success, if it is to come, and much like the rest of the season will be down to very thin resources. Thankfully, no injuries were sustained threatening our main team – the excellent Lowe was suffering cramp rather than a hamstring problem.
There is a hope that Wednesday will have to be more expansive at home allowing us more space, though anyone who saw the Hillsborough fixture during the season knows that there is little chance that Carvalhal will suddenly turn gung ho – he is, probably rightly given our failure to score against his team after 3 tries, going to remain happy with us dominating possession in non threatening areas because he trusts, again rightly, the quality of his defence.
Having spent significantly over the past two years, including the addition of Rhodes and Winnall in January, the entertainment free zone they present on the pitch is not particularly edifying but they start the second leg as clear favourites to reach Wembley. However, it is possible that genuinely progressive football – all be it too lacking in cutting edge – can defeat the anti- football preoccupation of the Portuguese, and Town will not enter the game with fear or without hope.
On to Hillsborough…..