In Focus: Black Cats and Owls do battle in play-off clash of the fallen giants
The prospect of another year in League One is enough to fill Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday supporters with dread.
Both huge clubs, boasting large fan bases and with storied histories, their meeting in a third-tier play-off semi-final is mouthwatering.
Promotion was the only aim for each side at the start of the year but only one of them will make the final on May 21.
Ahead of tonight's first leg at the Stadium of Light and reverse at Hillsborough three days later, we preview the second League One semi-final.
After sitting top of the table on January 1, a difficult month for the Black Cats saw Lee Johnson lose his job following a 6-0 thrashing at Bolton.
The Mackems were third at that stage and the decision seemed harsh, yet Alex Neil’s appointment has proven shrewd.
They have lost just once in his 15 games in charge, conceding 10 goals in that time and keeping seven clean sheets as the Scot tightened up a previously leaky backline.
Like all other teams involved in the play-offs, they enter on a hot run of form after a final day 1-0 win at Morecambe confirmed their spot.
Coming on strong
The final game of 2021 saw the Owls go down 5-0 at Sunderland as they ended the year five points off the play-offs and 12 behind their hosts.
But they have turned it around in 2022 and have lost just two of their last 15 games.
Victories over the likes of MK Dons and in-form Portsmouth near the end of the campaign see them head to the play-offs full of confidence.
Both sides are sweating on the fitness of key players ahead of Friday night’s clash — and that could shape the contest.
Barry Bannan made his 307th appearance for the Owls in their 4-1 win over Pompey, but he limped off with eight minutes remaining.
Given he has 12 assists for Darren Moore’s side, as well as leading them for most successful dribbles, passes and key passes this term, the experienced Scot would be a huge miss.
He was not the only key man to exit early on Saturday as Sunderland match-winner Nathan Broadhead also followed suit.
The Everton loanee has five goals in his past seven games since returning from injury and his absence could leave 24-goal star Ross Stewart has their only recognised senior striker.
Different type of pressure
There is no question that the pressure on these two sides is vastly different to that on the Wycombe and MK Dons players.
Both sides have huge fanbases and massive crowds are expected for both legs of the semi-final.
Wednesday are looking to bounce back into the Championship at the first time of asking, while this is Sunderland’s third crack at the League One play-offs in four seasons.
Former Owls midfielder David Prutton said: "These [games] are going to be huge, aren't they? It's got the feel of what would have been a Premier League game in all but name.
"It's two teams that are way off where they should be with the chance to take that small step back towards where they believe they should be.
"The fact you've got a League One play-off semi-final, which collectively could be played over the two legs in front of 80,000 people is just staggering really."
It is incredibly hard to determine who will come out on top in this tie with no clear favourite.
Just one point separated them after a 46-game season, while in the past 10 games Wednesday have taken 21 points and Sunderland 24.
Though Sunderland thrashed the Owls 5-0 at the Stadium of Light, the fixture at Hillsborough last November saw a 3-0 home victory.
And while both clubs spent most of the season coming up against smaller sides who are desperate to get one over one of the division’s giants, that just is not the case here.
Ex-Sunderland striker Don Goodman said: "Sheffield Wednesday beat Sunderland 3-0, Sunderland beat Sheffield Wednesday 5-0. How on earth do you unravel that?
"This literally is who's going to turn up on the day and then who's going to turn up on the following day when it matters."