FM21 Simulates the EFL Playoffs
The EFL playoffs always offer thrills, spills and and plenty of drama. For the fans of the clubs involved it brings all of the tension of the campaign to a dramatic conclusion – either the dizzying high of promotion or the crushing low of missing out having come so near.
To see what might lie in store for the 12 competing clubs over the next couple of weeks, we’ve simulated the playoffs across the three divisions and can reveal who we say will be celebrating at the end of it all.
Penalty Masters Bournemouth Triumph
Semi-Final: AFC Bournemouth 3-3 Brentford (AFC Bournemouth win on penalties)
Bournemouth against Brentford in the first semi-final promised to be a classic and it more than lived up to the billing as the Cherries’ penalty prowess helped them book their ticket to the final.
Bournemouth dominated the first leg and emerged with a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Diego Rico and Steve Cook. To compound Brentford’s uphill battle in the return leg, they would be without Ethan Pinnock after he saw red for a poor challenge in the dying moments of the game.
The second leg of the tie was nothing less than a stone cold classic. End-to-end action, late drama and a flurry of shots on target – it had it all. Brentford, perhaps with something to prove after their first leg performance, were 3-0 up at half-time and leading on aggregate after a dominant first-half display. Bryan Mbeumo nodded the Bees infront in the 22nd minute before a brace from the seemingly unstoppable Ivan Toney had the Brentford fans completed the remarkable turnaround and had Brentford’s fans planning a second successive trip to Wembley.
Bournemouth found their feet in the second half and began to trouble David Raya in the Brentford goal for the first time and Jonathan Woodgate’s men finally got their breakthrough after 76 minutes when Sam Surridge popped up at the far post with a tap-in to level the tie on aggregate.
The remainder of normal time and the entirety of extra-time passed without incident and so penalties were required to decide the winner. Brentford’s Marcus Forss stepped up first but saw his spot-kick well saved by Asmir Begovic in the Bournemouth goal. Crushingly for Forss, everyone else was flawless from 12 yards which meant Brentford tasted playoff defeat yet again – the 10th time they’ve qualified for the end of season showpiece without success.
Tykes Prove Worthy Underdogs
Semi-Final: Barnsley 3-2 Swansea City
This was Barnsley’s first appearance in the Sky Bet Championship playoffs in 21 years but they showed no signs of being overawed in their win over a Swansea side who were seeking a return to the top flight after a three year absence.
Austrian winger Dominik Frieser gave Barnsley the perfect start after just nine minutes of the first leg, rifling one in from the edge of the area. Valérien Ismaël’s men’s dominance in the first half probably should’ve yielded another goal but it wasn’t until the 81st minute that they were able to double their lead through Victor Adeboyejo who came off the bench to grab his third goal of the season and put Barnsley in the ascendancy going into the second leg.
If the Bournemouth vs Brentford tie had shown us anything, it was that a first leg lead shouldn’t be taken for granted. Barnsley were seemingly all too aware of this as their pressure in the opening stages produced a goal midway through the first-half with Conor Chaplin finishing from just inside the box.
Swansea responded six minutes later through André Ayew and began committing more men forward in search of the two goals that would level the tie on aggregate. Morgan Whittaker’s goal for the Swans after 75 minutes made it 2-1 on the night and set up a grandstand finish but despite a couple of speculative efforts in the dying minutes, it wasn’t to be and Barnsley fans would be the ones descending on Wembley.
Spot-Kick Specialists Strike Again
Final: AFC Bournemouth 1-1 Barnsley (AFC Bournemouth win on penalties)
With two sets of anxious yet tentatively hopeful fans watching on, the stage was set for a fascinating contest between one of the pre-season favourites for promotion and a side that had been tipped by most pundits to be battling at the other end of the table.
The eagerly awaited final produced nothing in the way of noteworthy action until six minutes into the second half when Adam Smith brought Alex Mowatt down inside the area, leaving the referee no option but to point to the spot. Daniel Frieser duly tucked away the resulting penalty, leaving Barnsley less than 40 minutes away from promotion.
Bournemouth pushed forward in search of an equaliser and squandered a host of opportunities that they surely would’ve scored had it not been for the pressures of a playoff final. The Cherries camped themselves in the Barnsley half but it looked like it wasn’t to be their day until substitute Sam Surridge scored in the 81st minute – his second late goal in as many games – to the delight of the Bournemouth fans, sending the final into extra-time.
The additional period was something of a damp squib and so penalties were required to decide the fate of both teams.
The first two rounds of the shootout were faultless but Barnsley’s Herbie Kane saw his penalty well saved by Begovic to hand the initiative to Bournemouth. The third and fourth assigned takers for both teams scored which meant Mads Andersen had to score with Barnsley’s fifth kick to keep them in it. The Danish centre-back sliced his shot wide to send Bournemouth back up at the first time of asking and left Barnsley fans rueing what might have been.
Seasiders Book Big City Trip
Semi-Final: Oxford United 2-3 Blackpool
Blackpool overcame a first leg deficit to see off Oxford United and continue their fine of run of form in the playoffs. The Seasiders boasted a 70% win ratio in playoff matches going into the tie and have won promotion via the playoffs in each of the three EFL leagues.
That record looked under threat when Oxford emerged from the first leg with a 2-1 advantage. Chris Hamilton had put Blackpool ahead after 33 minutes but Oxford grabbed the momentum just before half-time as Brandon Barker, a first half substitute for the injured Olamide Shadipo, slotted home from close range two minutes before the break.
Another Oxford substitute, Joe Grayson, put the U’s in front on the hour mark with a driven shot in the bottom corner that came against the run of play. Blackpool dominated possession and had the better chances but could not break the Oxford defence’s resistance and would be on the back foot going into the second leg.
Any doubts that Blackpool weren’t going to make yet another playoff final were quickly allayed in their familiar surroundings of Bloomfield Road. Sullay Kaikai fired Blackpool level on aggregate after just nine minutes before latching onto strike partner Jerry Yates’ through pass and burying the ball past Simon Eastwood in the Oxford goal 11 minutes later. Blackpool settled into their dominant style and Oxford could only offer up a solitary shot on target as they were helpless to stop Neil Critchley’s side from booking their spot at Wembley.
Black Cats see off Determined Imps
Semi-Final: Lincoln City 2-4 Sunderland
In the second semi-final, Sunderland were made to work hard for their 4-2 aggregate victory over Lincoln.
Lincoln can consider themselves unlucky to not have got more out of their first leg encounter having dominated possession and kept Sunderland’s potent attacking threats contained for the vast majority of the match. Unfortunately for Lincoln, they didn’t create many chances themselves and it was a rare foray forward that led to Sunderland’s winner.
Brennan Johnson’s cross was cleared to Aiden McGeady on the Sunderland flank and his ball into the box was met on the half volley by Josh Scowen, leaving Alex Palmer with no chance, putting Lee Johnson’s men 1-0 up with just eight minutes left on the clock.
Sunderland extended their advantage after just two minutes of the second leg as Jordan Jones curled an effort home from the edge of the area. Lincoln got themselves back into the tie 20 minutes later through Callum Morton – his composed finish giving the Imps fans some hope of turning the tide.
The Black Cats put the tie out of reach with two goals in six second half minutes. Jake Vokins marked his comeback to first-team action with a goal off the bench before Denver Hume’s 74th minute long-range thunderbolt all but wrapped things up. Morgan Rogers grabbed a consolation goal with eight minutes to go but Lincoln rarely threatened to cause any real problems for Sunderland before the full-time whistle.
Blackpool Illuminate Another Final
Final: Sunderland 0-1 Blackpool
Blackpool secured yet another promotion via the route of the playoffs and ensured that Sunderland would have to wait another year, at least, to return to the Sky Bet Championship.
The two teams were separated by just three points in the league table and played out an evenly contested final that could have gone either way. Sunderland started brightly, with Aiden McGeady forcing a good save from Chris Maxwell in the early stages and they had the lion’s share of possession in the opening 25 minutes.
The decisive moment in the match came after 33 minutes when Grant Ward was tripped just inside the area by Black Cats’ defender Jordan Willis. Sullay Kaikai stepped up and dispatched the penalty to give Blackpool what would prove to be a decisive advantage.
Both sides pushed forward in the second half, opening the game up and Sunderland fans will feel they could’ve, and perhaps should’ve, won it as, firstly, Bailey Wright’s header clattered the bar and then Jordan Jones shot straight at the ‘keeper from inside 18 yards.
Blackpool held on to claim a memorable victory and mark their return to the Sky Bet Championship for the first time in seven years.
Forest Green Breeze into Final
Semi-Final: Forest Green Rovers 3-0 Newport County
Forest Green Rovers booked a fairytale trip to the Sky Bet League Two playoff final with a convincing 3-0 aggregate win over Newport County.
Rovers, who only gained promotion into the EFL for the first time three seasons ago, can be proud of the way they resolutely defended away from home in the first leg of their semi-final tie and then produced a scintillating attacking performance at the innocent New Lawn to seal their spot in the final.
Newport came flying out of the traps in the first leg, putting pressure on the Forest Green backline almost immediately. On another day, they would’ve been 2-0 up at half-time but for the heroics of Rovers goalkeeper and Player of the Match, Lewis Thomas. He produced a pair of sublime saves to deny Ryan Taylor and then Josh Sheehan to keep the scores level going into the break. The game would remain goaless at the final whistle, partly due to the fact Newport were forced to switch to a more defensive mindset with just over an hour gone as Jack Evans was shown a straight red card for a lunge on Isaac Hutchinson.
Forest Green took control of the second leg from the first minute, playing with confidence and creating a host of chances that gave Newport no chance of getting a foothold into the game. Aaron Collins put Rovers ahead after half an hour before Josh Davison doubled their lead midway through the second half. Hutchinson added a superb third goal with a drilled shot into the bottom corner from 20 yards with nine minutes left on the clock as Forest Green eased into their first EFL playoff final.
Tranmere Pay the Price Against Morecambe
Semi-Final: Tranmere Rovers 3-3 Morecambe (Morecambe win on penalties)
Morecambe squeezed past Tranmere via a dramatic penalty shootout after two evenly matched encounters in their semi-final tie.
Tranmere came out of the first leg with a narrow advantage following a flurry of first-half goals. Evergreen striker James Vaughan put Tranmere ahead after 19 minutes with a powerful finish from 10 yards out but Morecambe grabbed an equaliser 15 minutes later through Toumani Diagouraga who pounced on a rebound from Cole Stockton’s shot.
The game was only level for three minutes before veteran stiker David Nugent nudged Tranmere back ahead with a header from Liam Feeney’s cross. Despite Morecambe having the better of the chances in the second half, they couldn’t grab a leveller and would need to come back from behind in the second leg.
That task became tougher less than 10 minutes into the second leg when Peter Clarke rose highest to meet a corner and powered a header into the back of the net to put Tranmere 3-1 up on aggregate. Morecambe settled into the game but, despite putting four shots on target in the first half, couldn’t find a way past Scott Davies in the Tranmere net.
Kelvin Mellor’s goal early in the second half gave Morecambe a way back into the tie before Cole Stockton’s dramatic 82nd minute strike made it 3-3 on aggregate and sent the tie into extra-time.
A largely uneventful extra-time period passed and made way for a penalty shootout that won’t be forgotten by either set of fans for a very long time as no fewer than 30 penalties were taken over the course of the shootout. Both teams’ first, third and seventh spot-kick takers missed before both teams went on a run of 15 straight successes from the spot. Unfortunately for Tranmere, the 30th kick of the shootout proved to be decisive as Kaiyne Woolery smashed his effort against the post to send Morecambe through to face Forest Green.
Late Drama Sends Forest Green into Sky Bet League One
Final: Forest Green Rovers 3-2 Morecambe (After extra-time)
Forest Green secured promotion to Sky Bet League One for the first time in the club’s history in a dramatic and action-packed Sky Bet League Two playoff final that entertained right up until the final whistle.
The game’s first goal came after just eight minutes when Ebou Adams produced a stunning strike from 25 yards that rifled into the top corner to put Forest Green ahead. Rovers’ lead lasted for just nine minutes as Yann Songo’o found himself unmarked in the area to tap in Carlos Mendes Gomes’ cross.
Aaron Collins nudged Forest Green back in front on the half hour mark, finishing off Adams’ cut-back. Jimmy Ball’s men saw out the remainder of the first half without incident leaving Morecambe to try and find a way back into the game in the second half.
Derek Adams sent his Morecambe side out looking to get on the front foot early on in the second 45 minutes. Despite getting into some good positions, the Shrimps couldn’t generate much in the way of shots on target or goalscoring opportunities.
With time running out, Morecambe committed more bodies forward and their persistence was rewarded in the most dramatic of circumstances. Cole Stockton’s shot was blocked by the Forest Green defence only to fall at the feet of the impressive Mendes Gomes whose first time shot beat Luke McGee and nestled in the back of the Forest Green net with 89 minutes on the clock.
The momentum was firmly with Morecambe as the game moved into extra-time but it would be Forest Green who would have the final say on proceedings. Collins, a perpetual thorn in Morecambe’s side, broke free of his defender and fired a shot from just inside the area. It should have been a comfortable save for Kyle Letheren in the Morecambe goal but he could only parry the ball out to the feet of Jake Young who wrote his place in Forest Green folklore.
That’s what FM21 predicts will happen in the EFL playoffs. If the real-life action is half as dramatic as the virtual matches then we are in for a treat…
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