It's the most wonderful time of the year!
Barnsley v Swansea City
The last time Barnsley beat Swansea was 17 matches ago in November 1983. Billy Joel was Number 1 with ‘Uptown Girl’ while Bryan Robson scored twice for England in a 4-0 win in Luxembourg. A pair of 2-0 Swansea victories this season don’t augur well for the Tykes either, but this is a Barnsley side which cares little for reputations or records. Valerien Ismael’s side have won 13 of their past 19 games. Steve Cooper’s men may be in poorer form, but having lost in the semi-finals last season, they will be determined to go at least one stage further.
AFC Bournemouth v Brentford
Trepidation time arrives for Brentford supporters given the fact that their team has never emerged victorious from the EFL Play-Offs in nine previous attempts. No club in the Sky Bet EFL has a worse record, but at least Thomas Frank’s side has recent experience from which to learn, having reached the delayed 2020 final. They can also gain confidence from completing the league double over Bournemouth this season. Meanwhile, the Cherries will hope to take a first leg lead by rekindling the fire that inspired a springtime seven-game winning run in which they scored 21 goals.
Lincoln City v Sunderland AFC
Historically, the Play-Offs have not been kind to either of these sides. Between them, they have made 11 appearances, reached just five finals and won not a single one. Don’t let that fool you into thinking they struggle with knockout football, however. Lincoln lifted the EFL Trophy at Wembley in 2018 and Sunderland followed them this season, having beaten Lincoln on penalties in the semi-finals following a 1-1 draw. This tie promises to be just as tight, so can either team eke out a precious first leg advantage at Sincil Bank?
Oxford United v Blackpool
Having vaulted into the Play-Offs on the final day of the regular season, Oxford United will carry with them the momentum that is considered so precious at this time of year. They will need all of it. Last season’s trip to Wembley was their first experience of the end-of-season jamboree. By contrast, Blackpool have history on their side. In eight Play-Off appearances, they have made it to Wembley seven times and won five of those finals, the outright record. Tangerines boss Neil Critchley knows the past counts for nothing, though.
Newport County v Forest Green Rovers
Happy travels, anyone? Newport and Forest Green have only met seven times before in the Sky Bet EFL, but not once has the home side managed to win. The 49-mile journey between their grounds could be one factor, while both sides have been renowned for their counter-attacking play. It points to a tie that will not be decided until the second leg in the Cotswolds. Both sides will be familiar with Wembley should they make it. In the past ten seasons, Forest Green have played there twice, Newport on four occasions.
Tranmere Rovers v Morecambe
Could replacing manager Keith Hill with Ian Dawes on the eve of the Play-Offs be the stroke of genius that inspires Tranmere to repeat their success of two seasons ago? Dawes will look to fit-again veteran striker James Vaughan to inspire an attack that has found the net just four times in its past nine games. Morecambe, on the other hand, have scored 15 goals in six games and are playing with a freedom the reflects their status as surprise contenders. In their previous five seasons, Morecambe finished no higher than 18th in Sky Bet League Two.