Swansea City’s defensive spine has been praised by Steve Cooper following last night’s 1-0 win over Barnsley in the first leg of their play-off semi-final.
Andre Ayew’s moment of class in the 39th minute settled the contest in Swansea’ favour, but Cooper’s side were bailed out by a big performance from Freddie Woodman in goal and commanding displays from Marc Guehi and the returning Ben Cabango at centre-back.
Woodman made a superb double save to deny Carlton Morris and Callum Brittain shortly after the break, as well as keeping out a Cauley Woodrow free kick in the second-half.
Guehi impressively came out of his battle with the dangerous Daryl Dike on top, whilst Cabango shook off a groin problem to start ahead of Ryan Bennett alongside the Chelsea loanee.
Beaming with his side’s defensive performance, Cooper told his post-match press conference: “I think Freddie made a good save at the end that I haven’t seen back, then there was a bit of a double save earlier on in the second-half.
“For Marc and Ben, who are two 20-year-olds, at the back in a game like that, I thought they were excellent.
“They have a great role model in Ryan Bennett in how he speaks to them and talks them through his experiences. They did really well and it was a good effort from the boys.
“It wasn’t a typical Swansea game, but that’s fine and you have to respect that. The balls coming into your box, you have to deal with that, and tonight we did, but that means nothing if we don’t carry it into Saturday.”
Swansea also had to overcome a ferocious atmosphere, as Barnsley welcomed back 4,500 supporters for the first time in over a year.
The game was played at a frantic pace early on, with Cooper expecting nothing less as Barnsley fed off what the fans were giving them.
“I’m pleased with the effort,” Cooper commented. “We knew what the game would be and that it would go a certain way. Away from home you have to accept that and you have to stand up to it.
“I thought we did that throughout the game. We got a moment of excellence with Andre’s goal and we managed to be a strong unit defensively. We could have shown a bit more quality on the ball, but I get it, fans were back in and creating a really good atmosphere.
“Barnsley are a tough team to play against in the way that they play, then there’s the psychological thing of trying to protect the lead a little bit. In the end, over the 90 minutes, we did that.”
Swansea were in this position last season, having beaten Brentford in the first leg of their 2019/20 play-off tie. However, returning to Griffin Park, Cooper’s side were beaten and missed out on the showpiece finale at Wembley.
Learning from that and protecting what they’ve got is the aim now.
“We’ve been here before and it’s only a small lead,” Cooper conceded. “We’ve got to manage that and protect that, which has got to be the focus and the mentality now.”
The second leg takes place at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday evening.