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Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 1st Leg

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Opinion: “Take a breath” - Sunderland are halfway towards another Wembley final!

After a superb home performance, Sunderland will take a slender lead into the second leg of our playoff semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday. Paddy Hollis looks at whether it could and should have been more.

Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Take a breath, Sunderland.

The first leg of the playoff semi-final is done and dusted, and it was a game that none of us will forget in a hurry.

On a raucous night on Wearside, over 44,000 fans witnessed a contest that probably summed up the League One promotion battle: two sides of genuine quality, with long-held aspirations of promotion, huffing and puffing against each other, and played inside a stadium that was absolutely bouncing.

As the old saying goes, you could’ve cut the tension with a knife, but the atmosphere at the Stadium of Light was electric from the get-go.

Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 1st Leg Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

The importance of this tie wasn’t lost on anyone, and the noise at kickoff was something that countless teams in higher divisions would die for, because it really did showcase our stadium at its absolute best.

The first half wasn’t necessarily one for the footballing purists, and the occasion was obviously playing on the minds of the players. With that in mind, the visitors would have been more than happy to be heading into the break at 0-0, but it was the lads in red and white who broke the deadlock.

Despite showing plenty of energy and aggression, Ross Stewart had been given minimal service for much of the half, but one ball over the top, coupled with a stroke of luck as the ball ricocheted off the legs of Bailey Peacock-Farrell, resulted in the big Scot burying the chance and giving us an all-important lead.

The start of the second half saw Sunderland playing high-intensity football and creating a hatful of excellent chances.

From my position in the South West corner, Alex Pritchard’s curling effort looked goalbound from the moment it left his boot, but the crossbar intervened to ensure he didn’t score what would have been an absolute peach.

Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 1st Leg Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Stewart’s second big opportunity, when he picked up on a loose header from Peacock-Farrell before shooting wide, was another good chance to strengthen our position, but we were on top for large parts of the half, and it was encouraging to see that we stepped up to the task.

Many of Sunderland’s players were superb on Friday night.

Our central defenders and midfielders stood up to the challenge manfully, but for me, Bailey Wright should take the plaudits as our standout performer.

Whenever he was called upon, the big Aussie got his head and his torso to the ball, and kept a cool head during the brief periods when the occasion threatened to get the better of us.

It wasn’t until the last fifteen to twenty minutes that Sheffield Wednesday began to put us under sustained pressure, and their switch to a midfield five started to look as though it could overrun us.

Although the visitors didn’t create any clear-cut chances, they started to knock on the door increasingly harder as the half wore on. We didn’t crumble, however, as Wright and the rest of our backline held firm, to ensure that we take a slender lead down to Hillsborough on Monday night.

The second leg of this tie will be a slog, without a doubt, not least because Sheffield Wednesday will need to come out firing and attack us. However, we do have that crucial lead, and I don’t believe that we will simply sit back and attempt to defend for the entire game.

After a long, hard season, we are now one victory from Wembley, and similar to Friday, the game will be held in front of a crowd that will be loud, proud, and desperate to help their team over the line.

For now, we can reflect on a job well done, but we have to regather ourselves for next week’s game, and it is vitally important to remember that we are all in it together.

Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 1st Leg Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

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