The richest prize in sport is tantalizingly within reach for the four teams still standing in the EFL Championship. Only one of Luton, Huddersfield, Sheffield United and Nottingham Forest can join Fulham and Bournemouth in next season’s Premier League; the battle to escape the playoffs is now well underway.
The first leg of Luton’s tie with Huddersfield was a customarily nervy affair, an early goal for the visitors at Kenilworth Road cancelled out by Hatters’ captain Sonny Bradley to leave the tie on a knife edge. Away goals do not count in the EFL playoffs meaning the equation is tantalisingly simple for both clubs at the John Smith’s Stadium on Monday. Win and they are off to Wembley.
Sheffield United and Nottingham Forest will begin their semi final on Saturday at Bramall Lane; the hosts have only earned promotion in one of eight playoff campaigns but Blades’ manager Paul Heckingbottom described that history as “irrelevant” for United. Forest, meanwhile, are looking to end a 23 year exile from England’s top flight; Steve Cooper’s side might have won automatic promotion but for defeat to Bournemouth earlier this month and will have to do things the hard way now.
Here’s the schedule and latest updates:
Schedule and how to watch
All times Eastern
Friday, May 13
Luton Town 1, Huddersfield Town 1
Saturday, May 14
Sheffield United vs. Nottingham Forest, 10 a.m. on ESPN+
Monday, May 16
Huddersfield Town vs. Luton Town, 2:45 p.m. on ESPN+
Tuesday, May 17
Nottingham Forest vs. Sheffield United, 2:45 p.m. on ESPN+
Sunday, May 29
Sheffield United/Nottingham Forest vs. Huddersfield/Luton, TBD on ESPN+
Honours even at Kenilworth Road
Everything is up in the air at the half time stage of the first semi final with Huddersfield travelling back from their first leg at Kenilworth Road with a 1-1 draw to their name, Daniel Sinani’s early strike cancelled out before the interval in a tense affair in Bedfordshire.
Chasing a top flight berth that would have capped eight year rise from non-league to Premier League, it was to be expected that Luton would show nerves early on. Perhaps that explains the leniency of referee Robert Jones when he allowed a shove from James Bree on Harry Toffolo to pass by without blowing his whistle; had the Hatters’ right back got his marching orders he could have had little reason to complain.
Huddersfield would not have to wait long to claim their lead, Sinani driving low past Matt Ingram at his near post. The visitors seemed willing to soak up the pressure that came their way but had few answers for the first half intensity of Cameron Jerome, determined to make an impression against his hometown club. The veteran striker won a free kick in the left channel from which Luton’s equaliser came, an excellent delivery by Kal Naismith guided in powerfully by captain Bradley. Jerome could have had a penalty before the half was out, colliding with Naby Sarr to no avail.
The second half saw both teams rather more concerned with staying in the game ahead of Monday’s second leg at the John Smith’s Stadium, Duane Holmes’ menace down the Huddersfield left just about repelled by the home defense. Carlos Corberan will be marginally the happier of the two managers with his side returning to a ground where they have lost only once this year knowing a win will send them to Wembley.
Sheffield United vs. Nottingham Forest preview
One of the reasons why Sheffield United are on a hot streak is the performances of Morgan Gibbs-White. A lot of Paul Heckingbottom’s squad is similar to the one that was relegated from the Premier League except for Gibbs-White who is on loan from Wolverhampton. Playing as a number ten or a second striker, he has scored 11 goals and assisted nine more to finish second on the team to Billy Sharp in scoring, who has scored 14 and assisted seven. Able to provide a strong outlet in front of Sander Berge, Oliver Norwood and John Fleck, Gibbs-White has been a catalyst in Sheffield United’s season and will need to keep his strong run of form heading into the playoffs.
As for Forest, it is hard to believe that this team was closer to the relegation zone when Steve Cooper took over after moving on from Chris Houghton. They’ve really turned it on. Cooper almost pulled them into an automatic promotion place but they’ll be happy with a playoff spot and being one of the favorites to be promoted this season. It has been a true team effort under Cooper with Brennan Johnson leading the line, but they’ve gotten good performances from on-loan players like James Garner, Keinan Davis, and Djed Spence while also even having backups like Ethan Horvath deputize in net while collecting a few clean sheets.