Friday the 13th lived up to its reputation as far as Brighton were concerned. The unforgiving nature of the play-offs was again underlined as they succumbed to a Sheffield Wednesday side who trailed them by 15 points ahead of at the end of the regular season.
Having suffered the disappointment of missing out on automatic promotion from the Championship on the final day of the campaign after failing to beat Middlesbrough, Chris Hughton finds himself in a familiar position of having to lift his players ahead of the decisive second leg. After seeing out the last half hour with 10 men when Anthony Knockaert went over on his ankle to become the fourth Brighton player to suffer an injury on the night, a two-goal deficit should perhaps be viewed as something of a moral victory, although it will prove a difficult one to overturn given that no side has ever accomplished such a feat.
It took a special goal to give the Owls the advantage, Ross Wallace, on his return from suspension, finding the bottom corner from almost 30 yards at the culmination of a flowing four-man move as first-half stoppage time approached. The Scotland international had already been denied by a fine save from David Stockdale as the hosts recovered from a shaky opening to dominate against numerically weakened opponents.
The strain finally told when, with 18 minutes left, Kieran Lee ran onto a Fernando Forestieri pass to find the corner of the net from a dozen yards to give a more accurate reflection of the hosts’ dominance. No side has overturned a two-goal first-leg deficit in play-off history at this level and given their mounting injury list, few would expect Brighton to buck the trend.
The hosts were fired-up by the perceived injustice of having Forestieri’s effort ruled out midway through the first-half as the Argentine-born Italy Under-21 striker found the bottom corner from 15 yards with a route one effort directly from a clearance from goalkeeper Keiren Westwood.
Celebrations were allowed to continue for several seconds before referee Andre Marriner, after encouragement from the Brighton players, consulted with his assistant Darren Cann. After a lengthy discussion, Forestieri’s effort was ruled out, the forward having been adjudged to return from an offside position when it was ruled that his Wednesday strike partner Gary Hooper had failed to get a touch to Westwood’s booming clearance. Despite Wednesday’s clear frustration, it was the correct decision.
Brighton came close to opening the scoring when Tomer Hemed’s header from Jiri Skalak’s early corner struck an upright. It proved to be the high point for the visitors, Skalak sending their best opportunity after the break narrowly over from a long-range free-kick with the deficit still a single goal.
Having already been depleted by suspension, they will need to perform a head count before Monday’s re-match after being forced to use all three substitutes inside the first 50 minutes, which worryingly for Hughton included Hemed, who was withdrawn with a hamstring injury. When Knockaert exited on a stretcher soon after, it turned into an exercise in damage limitation, a task they stuck to commendably until Lee broke their resistance with a goal which is likely to prove pivotal to the outcome of the tie when the sides reconvene next week.
A third goal would have put the tie beyond the visitors, but despite their chances appearing slim, they remain in the contest, albeit only just.