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Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League One

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Respect, not fear: Sunderland must embrace the challenge that Sheffield Wednesday will pose

Darren Moore’s team are formidable and will certainly test us, but as Philip West writes, Sunderland’s current form means that no playoff opponent should be feared.

Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

So, Sheffield Wednesday it is, then. Another of English football’s grand old clubs, tenants of a historical and iconic ground in Hillsborough, who we will play over two legs as the race for the Championship enters its final stages.

Having secured our playoff place with a victory over Morecambe on Saturday, attention now shifts to the four-team shootout, as ourselves, Wednesday, Wycombe and MK Dons battle it out for the third promotion spot.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

After our bad-tempered encounters against Portsmouth at the end of 2018/2019, and Max Power’s ill-fated ‘GERRAAAAAAAAAAARD’ moment against Lincoln last season, this double-header has much more of a heavyweight feel to it, not least because of the fact that these are two clubs that see their futures at a higher level, and that they are backed by two fervent, passionate fanbases who have experienced turmoil aplenty during recent years.

There is a curious historical quirk of fate in the fact we have drawn the Owls at this stage.

At the end of the 1997/1998 season, our first at the Stadium of Light, it was the team from the other side of the Steel City who stood between Peter Reid’s team and a Wembley berth, as Sheffield United arrived, aiming to defend their first-leg advantage.

For fans of my generation, that night went down in folklore. We have all seen the iconic footage of Lionel Perez - peroxide blonde hairstyle and all - diving this way and that to keep the Blades at bay, as well as Kevin Phillips wheeling away in celebration after scoring what turned out to be the winner, accompanied by Rob Hawthorne and Alan Brazil’s dramatic Sky Sports commentary.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Play-Off Second Leg - Sunderland v Sheffield United Photo by Michael Steele/EMPICS via Getty Images

That game was an early classic at our new home, and although the ending against Charlton at the national stadium was a sour one, it did give rise to a relationship between Sunderland and the playoffs that are both turbulent and engrossing, to put it mildly.

Since that day in 1998, Crystal Palace, Charlton (again) and Lincoln have ended our promotion hopes in gut-wrenching fashion.

As Sunderland fans, hope both sustains and often hurts us, but I do feel that Alex Neil will be relishing this challenge, and if we are the ‘unfancied’ team among the quartet, perhaps a siege mentality will build this week. After all, we are currently on a thirteen-game unbeaten run, and the momentum we craved is definitely with us.

Sunderland v Crewe Alexandra - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

With that in mind, how are things shaping up ahead of this Friday-Monday encounter, and how confident can we be of success?

The two league encounters this season could scarcely have been more contrasting. Having sleepwalked our way to a 3-0 defeat during the away fixture in November (on the back of a 5-1 hiding at Rotherham), we gained a semblance of revenge by putting them to the sword, and winning 5-0, in December.

That was one of the undoubted highlights of the season, and a fleeting glimpse that this team did indeed possess automatic promotion credentials, albeit without the resilience and the hard-nosed attitude that often sets the top two apart.

In terms of the respective squads, there is little to choose between ourselves and Darren Moore’s team.

Both sides have solid and reliable presences in goal, with Anthony Patterson and Bailey Peacock-Farrell respectively. In terms of creativity, Wednesday have been driven all season by the master string-puller in Barry Bannan, and we have our own mercurial playmaker in Alex Pritchard.

Sunderland v Burton Albion - Sky Bet League 1 Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Upfront, the Owls can boast the threat and dynamism of the reborn and always-dangerous Saido Berahino, whereas we certainly need Ross Stewart to find his goalscoring touch again.

These head-to-heads ought to make for a fascinating dynamic when we lock horns, and it is not a stretch to say that these will be two of the biggest games in this league for some time. Indeed, you could even say that it is a duel that would be fit for the final.

Friday’s game, which ought to take place in front of an expectant crowd and in a raucous atmosphere, could be another classic entry in the list of memorable games hosted on the banks of the Wear since 1997. Tickets have been priced very reasonably, and I do believe that spirits will be high, after the upturn in form and results since February.

Having evolved into a much more streetwise and robust team under Neil, we should approach the game without fear, but should be aware of the threats that Wednesday pose.

This time, the playoffs are a challenge to be relished, not an ordeal to be feared, and if we can navigate our way through the games and book ourselves a trip to Wembley, the dream of promotion will be tantalisingly close once again.

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