A lot has changed since we got duffed up by tomorrow’s hosts in the FA Cup back in January.
It certainly wasn’t one of City’s finest afternoons of the season although it was clear from Barnsley’s relentlessness that afternoon that they had enough about them to get themselves into the promotion frame.
At the time, the Tykes were 12th and City top but, despite Daniel Farke having made a few changes from the previous game (a 2-0 home win over Bristol City), few of us were prepared for the onslaught that ensued and even less prepared for that onslaught to last the full 90 minutes.
Most agree that, on the day, Barnsley were well worth their 1-0 win.
But it was a sign of things to come: a run of 12 games unbeaten, including seven consecutive wins, that took them from 12th to 5th. When that run finally ended with a home defeat by Sheffield Wednesday on 20 March, they had overtaken, among others, Bournemouth and Reading and were already looking well set for a playoff place.
Only two defeats since and the timely implosion of Reading cemented the Tykes’ playoff place with two games of the season left, with the only current uncertainty being their opponents in the semifinal.
Manager Valerien Ismael, a colleague of Daniel Farke from their UEFA Pro Licence days, has put together a team that plays nice football but, crucially, plays with oomph and, as we discovered on that day in January, when it clicks, few in the division can live with it.
In Ismael’s words: “We play with courage and heart. We play with intensity. This is my way. This is me.”
It hasn’t always been that way though, which is why when we met in the FA Cup they were down in 12th and two weeks earlier City had delivered a fairly routine 1-0 win over them at Carrow Road. A slow start to the campaign, which saw them go seven games without a win, even sent a few alarm bells ringing in South Yorkshire but it was a slow-burner worth waiting for – one that has effectively rendered tomorrow’s game s dead rubber.
Barnsley will, however, want to go into the playoffs with momentum and after losing 2-0 at Preston last week that means getting a positive result tomorrow. The last thing they’ll want is to be given a Norwich City lesson, so Ismael, who was critical of their performance at Deepdale, will have them motivated, with an end-of-season type afternnon being the last thing he needs.
Ismael will, however, also want to consider the need to have his troops as fresh and as injury-free as possible for the first leg as the playoffs, so it will be a balance for him to strike.
So, while they’ll be motivated – there are semi-final places to play for after all – I’m not expecting the ferocity that City encountered in that FA Cup tie.
As far as City are concerned, Farke will not want this glorious season to end with a whimper. This time around there have been more than a couple of days for the alcohol from the beer, champagne and MD 20/20 to depart the Mayor’s bloodstream and, besides, he promised us, post-Reading, that he would be sober by today.
Professionalism oozes from every pore of Team Farke – one of its many qualities – and the limp, post-promotion-party performance against Watford will have irked. There will be a collective desire for this season to end on a high, even if it is going to be concluded without the services of the injured Teemu Pukki and Oliver Skipp.
There is of course another party in the offing – it’s not often you lift the famous Championship trophy – but it will be forgotten for 90 minutes as City look to hit the 99-point barrier.
Ultimately, what occurs at Oakwell tomorrow afternoon doesn’t really matter but try telling that to Farke and Eddie Riemer. They’ll be demanding a win just as they have over the preceding 45 games.
Whether or not that’s achieved may well come down to the Mayor keeping his word 🙂
Go well, lads, for one final time.