In Focus: Hatters and Terriers battle it out for play-off final spot
The Championship play-offs kick off in the most unlikely of settings tonight as Luton welcome Huddersfield to Kenilworth Road.
Just eight years on from returning to the Football League after a five-year absence, the Hatters are three games away from a stunning promotion to the top flight.
But the Terriers have also enjoyed a fine season, proving all pre-season predictions wrong as they cruised to a third-placed finish under the guidance of Carlos Corberan.
We preview the semi-final with the first leg taking place tonight and the second in West Yorkshire on Monday evening.
An upward trajectory
A narrow 1-0 victory over Reading on the final day secured Luton’s play-off position, though they actually had enough points after the 1-0 win at Cardiff on Easter Monday as it turned out.
The Hatters sat 14th on New Year's Day, 10 points off the play-offs, albeit with games in hand on virtually every side above them.
A 97th-minute Kal Naismith winner against Bournemouth in their first league game of 2022 kick-started an impressive run of form as they picked up 34 points from 16 games to head into the March international break third in the table.
Though they stuttered a little in the final weeks, the Bedfordshire side are on the verge of returning to the top tier for the first time in 30 years.
No mean feat
While Luton were widely thought to be this season’s dark horses, Huddersfield were tipped to be embroiled in a relegation battle.
But in his second season, Spanish coach Corberan has proven everyone wrong and masterminded a stunning campaign for his side.
The West Yorkshire club have been in the mix all year and come into the play-offs after winning six and drawing one of their past seven games.
In fact, they have only suffered two league losses since going down 2-1 to Middlesbrough last November.
A former member of Marcelo Bielsa's backroom staff at Leeds, Corberan has reined in his preferred style somewhat this year to make his outfit more solid.
They conceded more goals (71) than anyone else in the 2020-21 campaign but this term they have only let in 47.
It really is a team of unsung heroes with keeper Lee Nicholls, 29, who was signed on a free after spending the previous campaign as MK Dons’ No2 in League One, winning the club's Player of the Season award.
Portsmouth boss Danny Cowley was Corberan’s predecessor and he sang the 39-year-old's praises.
Cowley said: "I think he's [Corberan] probably changed the game idea a little.
"Still a little bit of that [Marcelo] Bielsa style in possession but against the ball they've been much more pragmatic, defended the space as well as the man.
"Carlos deserves a lot of credit for what he's done for the likes of Jonathan Hogg, Lewis O'Brien and Harry Toffolo."
Pace and power
Luton’s rise through the league was built on a side playing football that was easy on the eye, but boss Nathan Jones has moved away from that slightly this term.
In their third year in the Championship, the Hatters are a high-pressing, physical side, happy to go long to 16-goal striker Elijah Adebayo and use the pace of Harry Cornick off him.
Though experienced heads Henri Lansbury, Cameron Jerome and February signing Robert Snodgrass are all well-known names, the majority of Jones’ squad were unproven in the second tier prior to their Kenilworth Road moves.
And the ex-Stoke boss, who made over 100 appearances at Brighton and Yeovil during his playing days, believes it is the best group he has ever been involved with.
In March, he said: "I’ve been in the game 32-and-a-half years near enough and this is the best group I’ve ever worked with.
"I'm so proud of them, it’s not the most talented, but it’s definitely the best, tightest, hard-working, humble, all the good words that you want to use about human beings and players, these have it better than anyone else."
The treatment room
Neither of the two sides come into the tie with fully-fit squads to choose from and that may define the tie.
The Hatters have had problems all season and will be desperate for star striker Adebayo to return after two games out.
Huddersfield, meanwhile, should have their talisman O’Brien back and may be able to name both Sorba Thomas and Matty Pearson in the squad.
Two tight league games saw a 0-0 draw at Kenilworth Road in October and a 2-0 home win for the Terriers last month.
And the Huddersfield boss is expecting more of the same this time around.
Corberan said: "If you analyse the two games you can see how tough, how close and how demanding the next game is going to be.
"You can’t feel that there is any type of favourite in the play-offs — in either of the two games — but any type of game for me there won’t be any type of favourite."