The richest prize in sport is tantalizingly within reach as two teams are still standing in the EFL Championship. Either Huddersfield or 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 spot in the final has been booked with Nottingham Forest joining Huddersfield at Wembley on May 29 after a dramatic 3-2 penalty win over the Blades.
Here’s the schedule and latest updates:
(All times U.S./Eastern)
Friday, May 13
Luton Town 1, Huddersfield Town 1
Saturday, May 14
Sheffield United 1, Nottingham Forest 2
Monday, May 16
Huddersfield Town 1, Luton Town 0
Tuesday, May 17
Nottingham Forest 1, Sheffield United 2 (3-2 on penalties)
Sunday, May 29
Nottingham Forest vs. Huddersfield, TBD on ESPN+
Superb Samba seals Forest final
Forest booked their berth against Huddersfield with a penalty win over the Blades with Brice Samba the hero despite throwing away a two-goal lead. The visitors started the stronger of the two with the goalkeeper called into action early on to deny Iliman Ndiaye in the opening exchanges as the hosts were caught out by a motivated away side.
However, it appeared to be over after 19 minutes when Johnson put Forest in front with his 19th goal of the season after being teed up by Sam Surridge. The pressure seemed to be getting to manager Paul Heckingbottom on the Blades bench when he returned the ball with interest to Djed Spence which cued something of a brawl.
Then came the game-changing moment two minutes into the second half. Ndiaye got in behind the Forest rearguard, Sander Berge crossed it in and Morgan Gibbs-White was on hand to turn the ball home. It was not until 15 minutes from time that the turnaround was complete, though, with Ndiaye involved again to release George Baldock with John Fleck able to convert from his ball in to equal the 1-2 first leg score to confirm extra time.
Wes Foderingham was called into action twice during extra time to keep the Blades in it while Samba was alert again to keep Ndiaye out before Joe Lolley’s effort went just wide. Penalties were needed to separate the two teams and Forest held their collective nerve on the night as Oliver Norwood, Conor Hourihane and Gibbs-White were the fall guys for the Blades up against an imposing Samba, but Lolley also failed to convert. Samba stopped three penalties on his own to guide his team to the brink of a Premier League return. Nottingham have not played in the first division since 2003-04.
But the game was not without some post-match controversy with Heckingbottom claiming that Sheffield player Billy Sharp was attacked after the match during the pitch invasion by the jubilant home crowd.
“It’s assault. We’ve seen one of our players attacked,” he said, according to the club’s official Twitter account. “He’s shuck up, bleeding, angry. It’ll be dealt with.”
Homefield advantage sees the Terriers through
The first place in the final has been secured with Jordan Rhodes breaking the deadlock in the 82nd minute for the 1-0 victory (2-1 on aggregate) over Luton Town. Sorba Thomas delivered the assist after being introduced in the match after the 61st minute. There will be a slight worry for the final as Danny Ward had to be withdrawn before the half, but there is ample time (almost two weeks to go before the final) for the Terrier’s top scorer to recover.
Things were level after the first leg where Daniel Sinani’s early strike was canceled out before the interval by Sonny Bradley in a tense affair in Bedfordshire. Luton were 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. But they were able to battle with Huddersfield across both legs until they ran out of steam late in the second leg.
The Terriers thought they were already ahead when Tom Lees hit the back of the net, but his chance was ruled out due to a foul. The set play dominance was a sign of things to come. Ward was replaced by Jordan Rhodes, who knows a thing or two about scoring in big moments. After Sorba Thomas entered the game, the Terriers were able to create more chances, which led to their eventual winner and a spot at Wembley. Tuesday will determine if Nottingham Forest will join or if Sheffield United can come back away from home.
Luton may have gone out of the playoffs but their impressive run will hopefully be something that they can build on next season. Compared to the high rollers of the Championship, spending a paltry $1.8 million on their squad deserves a pat on the back of the recruitment team. If Luton can keep improving, they could be right back in the playoffs next season with an improved side.
For Huddersfield, they’ll hope that Ward is fit for the final. If he isn’t, Rhodes will be up for the job as will their defense. Lee Nicholls made six saves in the second leg and considering the strength of the attacks that he could face, he’ll be called on again at Wembley.