Sky Bet Championship: Four things from the second legs of the play-offs

Brentford celebrate reaching the Sky Bet Championship play-off final

It was another action-packed 26 or so hours in the Sky Bet Championship play-offs. Tom Carnduff looks at four big talking points.

On Wednesday, Brentford overturned a 1-0 deficit from the first leg with a 3-1 victory at Griffin Park. That means the Bees, favourites for promotion before the weekend, will feature in the Wembley finale next week.

The following day, Fulham booked their spot at the national stadium despite losing 2-1 to Cardiff on the night. Scott Parker's side already held a commanding 2-0 lead from the first leg.

A West London derby adds a significant factor to the biggest game of the Championship season. Sporting Life will be providing full coverage of the final.

Here, Tom Carnduff looks at four of the big talking points from the second legs.

Brentford back to their best

Questions were asked of this Brentford team after they missed out on automatic promotion following back-to-back defeats in the final week of the season.

Those concerns became louder as they were beaten 1-0 by Swansea in the first leg of their play-off semi-final meeting on Sunday.

However, the Bees were buzzing in the final game to be staged at Griffin Park as they outshone Swansea in all areas to overturn the deficit and book their spot at Wembley.

Thomas Frank was confident his side would do it and he had every right to be as the Swans failed to match the intensity of their opponents - that's despite Pontus Jansson's best efforts to give the away side a route back into the contest late on.

Ollie Watkins and Emiliano Marcondes turned things around when they put Brentford 2-0 ahead with just 15 minutes on the clock. Bryan Mbeumo scored early in the second-half to further tighten the hosts' grip on the contest.

Brentford celebrate Bryan Mbeumo's goal

It was a more than deserved result for Brentford who firmly put their three-game losing run behind them with a performance that reflected their position in the automatic promotion race until the very end.

"We were very irritated after the game over there," Frank told the media after game. "My adrenaline never stopped until today after this game.

"We talked about not coming off the pitch without reaching the final. The message was we needed to start faster than we ever had before and we did that.

"It was nervy. At 3-0 we should just ease through, or potentially score the fourth goal. We made a mistake we shouldn’t make.

"Of course I’m extremely pleased and happy. It’s a very nice moment. I will celebrate tonight with a glass of red because we have achieved something good. But we will go to the final to win it."

Watkins shines once again

Ollie Watkins celebrates scoring against Swansea

Brentford's front line has been one of the highlights of the Sky Bet Championship season. Said Benrahma, Mbeumo and Watkins have proven to be influential and a nightmare for opposition defences - the 'BMW' were at top speed in that second leg contest.

Benrahma's eye-catching ability on the ball means he is often the main focus of attention but Watkins demonstrated why he is a Premier League ready forward with his performance at Griffin Park.

The 24-year-old has lead the line superbly having played on the wing last season. During his time at Exeter he would drop into central midfield when required; his ability allows him to adapt to various positions on the pitch.

Through watching Neal Maupay in that central role, the striker who departed Brentford for Brighton last summer, Watkins has improved his game and has everything needed for the modern striker in this system. His movement is excellent while being comfortable of the ball. Of course, there's the 26 goals to go alongside all that.

Wednesday night's showing was another in a line of good performances from Watkins; a player who has flourished since the league restarted in mid to late June.

Ollie Watkins in the Sky Bet Championship this season

There may have only been four goals since the restart but the statistics show that there could have been more. Between January 18 and June 26 (the week after the league got back underway), Watkins had an xG figure of 0.25 per 90 minutes. Since then, his per game total has risen to 0.58 xG.

The performance in the second leg accurately reflects that rise. Watkins had one real opportunity to net all game, that coming when he scored early on, and he made no mistake in finding the bottom corner one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

Watkins could well have benefitted from less time spent trying to beat opposition defenders in possession. He only had one successful dribble in the win over Swansea (from one attempt) and that is consistent with his post-lockdown performances.

In the period between October 5 and June 30, he had a total of 2.69 dribbles per 90 minutes. From the beginning of July until the first leg meeting with the Swans, that figure dropped to 1.17 per 90. Doing less with the ball could explain why he has seen his Expected Goals figure rise over the same period.

Ollie Watkins' passing distribution sonar when home and away (via Twenty3)

A factor to consider when it comes to that play-off final is how Brentford approach the game and how that could impact what role Watkins is expected to play - particularly in distribution of the ball.

It's clear from Watkins' passing distribution sonars that there is a more positive attitude in home matches than away. The above reflects the post lockdown period between June 20 and July 28.

The away sonar suggests a more conservative approach; drawing midfielders into the attack by acting more of a traditional striker in a form of a 'target man'.

At home, it's clear that they hold a positive attitude. Passes are made in a more forward direction while he often looks to find Benrahma on the left more than Mbeumo on the right. Given Fulham's more attacking-based full-backs, we could expect his Wembley sonar to reflect the home one more than the away.

Cardiff make Fulham sweat

Fulham may have been comfortable for large parts of the first leg but they were made to sweat by a second leg onslaught from Cardiff as they pushed for a second-half aggregate equaliser.

The Bluebirds got the perfect start at Craven Cottage when Curtis Nelson headed them into a lead on the night with eight minutes on the clock. 24 seconds later, Neeskens Kebano levelled as he connected with a low cross into the box and Fulham cruised to a safe aggregate victory.

Neil Harris introduced Lee Tomlin at half-time and it was an impact substitution as the forward scored less than two minutes later. The visitors pushed, and were left in disbelief when a succession of chances failed to find the net as Marek Rodak and the Fulham defence stood strong.

The second-half was incredible entertainment as the game bounced between both ends in the final 20 minutes. Cardiff pushed but Fulham constantly reminded them of what they could do.

Better finishing could have seen Cardiff progress but it was Fulham's night as they now have a chance to return to the Premier League at the first time of asking. Parker's unhappy expression during a team huddle at full-time accurately reflected the contest.

Cardiff celebrate Lee Tomlin's goal

"It wasn’t pretty at all," Fulham captain Tom Cairney told Sky Sports after the game. "It was the worst start you can think of.

"These 2-0 leads are a bit weird in your head. It feels comfortable but is not at the same time. I think we let ourselves down a little bit by not playing our normal game, and we invited pressure.

"But, look, we showed a different side to us at times as well in the second half especially. When our backs were against the wall, we dug in deep and we got over the line."

Fulham team-mate Michael Hector echoed the skipper’s sentiments and is looking forward to the final with Brentford.

"In the recent game we played against them here, I think we didn’t take our chances and they caught us cold right at the end," he said of the Bees’ 2-0 win at Craven Cottage in June.

"But I think at Wembley anything can happen. It’s a one-off game and we’re really positive going into that. Anything can happen."

Brentford favourites for promotion

Fulham and Brentford will meet at Wembley

Fulham were odds-on to secure a return to the Premier League after the first legs, but Brentford have wrestled back their favourites tag with Sky Bet pricing them up at 4/7 for success.

The Bees were the favourites before the four games and are fancied to finish the job at Wembley. Fulham have drifted to an odds-against 5/4.

Brentford were backed for automatic promotion when West Brom lost to Huddersfield. With the expectation shifted and all eyes on them, they followed it up with a defeat at Stoke.

Even on final day they failed to capitalise on the Baggies dropping points as they lost at home to Barnsley. It seems that Brentford prefer to play the underdog.

That could well work in Fulham's favour and they will have to capitalise. Brentford looked back to their best whereas Fulham struggled in the second legs; this is set-up to be a thriller next week.

Odds correct at 2200 BST (30/07/20)

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