Five hours before Manchester City and Chelsea battle to be crowned champions of Europe on Saturday, 29 May, two other sides are set to play for one of the most coveted prizes in football. Wembley will host Brentford vs Swansea City in the Championship play-off final, with the victor claiming a place in the Premier League.
Swansea will undoubtedly have revenge on their minds given the events of last season’s play-offs. Before losing to Fulham in the final, Brentford recovered from a 1-0 first-leg defeat to dump the Welsh side out of the semi-finals with a 3-2 aggregate victory. For Brentford, motivation will come from the chance to get the club into the Premier League for the first time ever.
Journey to the Championship play-off final
Both teams will be confident following deserved victories in the semi-finals, although Brentford is the bookmakers’ favourites (at around 10/11 compared to Swansea at 16/5) having finished third – one place and seven points ahead of Swansea. The Bees have also had an excellent run in the Carabao Cup this season, making the final four before losing to Tottenham Hotspur.
Brentford replicated last season’s semi-final victory this season, winning 3-2 on aggregate against Bournemouth after overturning a 1-0 defeat in the first leg. Arnaut Danjuma struck twice for Bournemouth on the counter, once in the first game and again five minutes into the second, to put Brentford on the brink of another season in the Championship. An Ivan Toney penalty brought the West Londoners back into the second leg, and when Bournemouth’s Chris Mepham saw red after 28 minutes Brentford appeared to be in control. Second-half goals from Vitaly Janelt and Marcus Forss secured their ticket to Wembley.
When asked to summarise the second leg, Brentford manager Thomas Frank told the club’s YouTube channel: “No, I can’t. It was an unbelievable rollercoaster of emotions throughout
“The players were unbelievable in their belief, mentality, attitude … and tomorrow we look forward and prepare for a minor game at Wembley.”
Unlike Brentford, Swansea never found themselves behind in their semi-final. Talismanic forward André Ayew curled a beautiful shot past Barnsley goalkeeper Bradley Collins to seal a 1-0 first-leg victory, only for Swansea captain Matt Grimes to out-do his teammate with an even more spectacular strike in the second leg. After Cauley Woodrow pulled a goal back 20 minutes from time, Swansea defended gallantly against a Barnsley barrage and came away 2-1 winners on aggregate.
In his press conference after the second leg, Swansea manager Steve Cooper described his side’s goals as “two defining moments of technique at the highest level”.
He continued: “Now that we play Brentford in the final, it will be a very different game technically and tactically. We’ve had two tough games against them… but we’ve shown that we can play well in games like that this year.”
The previous games between the two sides this season offer very little insight into who may escape England’s relentless second tier. Both ended 1-1, with Brentford taking the lead and Swansea equalising on each occasion. Moreover, both sides have undergone tactical transformations since they last faced off.
Swansea has operated in a 3-5-2 for the majority of their campaign but transitioned into a 4-3-3 for the last seven games of the regular season. This system, which has typically seen Jamal Lowe operate on the left of the front three with Ayew on the right, was also used in their semi-final victory.
Coincidentally, Brentford has done the reverse, shifting from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 in their last eight games. Previously, Toney has found himself flanked by Bryan Mbeumo and Sergi Canós, whereas recently Frank has opted to play the Championship’s top scorer in partnership with Mbeumo or Marcus Forss. Frank will be deliberating whether to partner Toney with Mbeumo’s energy or Forss’ physical presence on Saturday.
After Swansea’s semi-final Cooper joked that he would be watching clips of Brentford on his laptop as soon as he got home. Presumably, his principal concern will be figuring out how to stop Toney. The Brentford frontman, who joined from Peterborough United last summer, scored 30 Championship goals in the regular season – the joint-most ever with Glenn Murray in the 2012/13 season. Given that no other Brentford player has hit double-digits in the league this season, containing Toney – which is much easier said than done – will stand the Swans in good stead.
Conversely, Brentford must be wary of Ayew and Lowe, who will threaten from wide and look to exploit the defensive gaps in the Bees’ 3-5-2. The pair have totalled 17 and 14 goals respectively this season, supported by the ever-presence of Grimes pulling the strings in midfield. It would not have taken Cooper very long on his laptop to see that Brentford struggled to defend counter-attacks against Bournemouth. Lowe’s dynamism may be a crucial weapon in this regard, particularly with the less-than-dynamic Pontus Jansson likely to start at the heart of Brentford’s backline.