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One leg down, one to go and one team will reach the Championship play-off final on May 29. After an exhilarating encounter, Luton Town and Huddersfield Town are level on both goals and expectation, although Huddersfield may yet rue their inability to turn dominance into victory.
“We haven’t lost the game and that’s really important,” Nathan Jones, the Luton manager, whose team travel north on Saturday for Monday evening’s second leg. “We were electric in the first half. In the second they frustrated us, but we learned to deal with it. If we didn’t think we could win, we might as well save on the hotel bills and stay here.”
A non-league team as recently as 2014, and with a budget still akin to that level, Luton’s eye-catching rise may not have plateaued, but Huddersfield, who ended the season three places and seven points ahead of Luton after finishing 20th last term, have their tale to tell, too.
“A positive step,” argued Carlos Coberan, the Huddersfield head coach. “But they were adapting to our dominance and we need to find new solutions. The challenges and demands will be different but it will be another balanced game.”
There was early havoc in what would prove to be a frenetic evening. Huddersfield might have had a penalty in the first 20 seconds when Harry Toffolo was swatted by James Bree following Ollie Turton’s cross.
The visitors were ahead after 12 minutes when Toffolo took advantage of Kai Naismith’s stumble to feed Daniel Sinani. There was still much for the Luxembourg striker to do, but he ran towards goal, drew Sonny Bradley wide and slotted past Matt Ingram at the on-loan goalkeeper’s near post.
The goal settled Huddersfield, quietened the crowd and briefly sucked the momentum from Luton. Still though the immediate future was orange and the defenders partly culpable for Huddersfield’s goal had swift redemption. Tom Lees fouled Cameron Jerome on Luton’s left. Naismith whipped in the free-kick straight to Bradley, who volleyed home his first goal of 2022 from five yards.
Then Jerome moved into turn-back-the-clock mode, first with a sizzling 25-yard drive which cleared Lee Nicholls’s bar by inches, then with a run into the box before being felled by Naby Sarr. “A red card,” argued Jones despite referee Robert Jones’s lack of interest and finally with a low cross which gave the unmarked Lansbury a free shot which was charged down by Sarr.
Yet, for all Huddersfield's territorial hegemony, they struggled to trouble Ingram and their waves of attacks crashed on the aerially dominant collective rock that was Luton’s defensive trio. All square and all back to Huddersfield on Monday. “It’s a straight shoot-out,” noted Jones. “Winner takes all, but we’ll go through God willing.”
Luton Town (3-1-4-2) Ingram: Burke (Hylton, 80), Bradley, Naismith; Lansbury (Lockyer, 67); Bree, Campbell, Clark, Bell; Jerome (Snodgrass, 89), Cornick.
Substitutes not used Isted (gk), Potts, Mendes Gomes, Kioso. Booked Bell.
Huddersfield Town (3-5-2) Nicholls; Lees, Hogg, Sarr; Turton (Pipa, h-t), Holmes, Russell, O’Brien, Toffolo; Sinani (Thomas, 85), Ward (Rhodes, 72).
Substitutes not used Blackman (gk), Anjorin, Colwill, Eiting.
Referee Robert Jones (Merseyside). Attendance 10,005.