Swansea City recovered from a slow start to beat Sheffield Wednesday and maintain their challenge for a Championship play-off place.
It could have been a different story had Wednesday capitalised on their first-half dominance, exposing the hosts’ new-look three-man defence but wasting several chances.
Swansea then converted their first opportunity, Liverpool loanee Rhian Brewster smashing in from close range to score a goal for which the phrase ‘against the run of play’ could have been invented.
Andre Ayew struck the Swans’ second with a penalty after Connor Roberts was wrestled to the ground by Adam Reach, before Atdhe Nuhiu headed in an injury-time consolation goal for Wednesday.
Steve Cooper’s side are now eighth in the Championship and back within four points of the play-off places with five matches left this season. The Owls remain 14th.
This was a timely victory for Swansea, who had resumed their season with an excellent 3-0 win at Middlesbrough, but then lost at home to Luton and drawn at Millwall, leaving them seven points adrift of the top six following Cardiff City’s win at Bristol City on Saturday.
And despite being thoroughly outplayed by Wednesday in the first half here, the Swans recovered to keep their somewhat fragile play-off hopes intact.
Having switched to a 3-4-2-1 formation, Swansea’s narrow three-man defence was initially severely stretched by Wednesday, whose right winger Jacob Murphy was given far too much space.
He found himself unmarked in the penalty area for his first chance, which he half-volleyed over the bar, and just a couple of minutes later his low shot was saved by Freddie Woodman.
Cooper’s tactical change was playing right into Wednesday’s hands, ironic as it appeared to be an attempt to nullify the visitors’ own three-at-the-back system.
The early pattern would have been particularly pleasing for Wednesday boss Garry Monk, who was back at the club where he spent 11 years as player and coach and will have been encouraged to see his former team-mate Wayne Routledge struggle in his unfamiliar role of left wing-back.
The three defenders playing behind the 35-year-old playmaker, Jake Bidwell, Marc Guehi and Kyle Naughton, also looked uncomfortable in the new formation.
But Chelsea loanee Guehi, making only his sixth career league start, was perhaps the only real first-half positive for the home side, making a crucial block to deny Alessio Da Cruz what seemed a certain goal from close range.
Da Cruz missed another good chance moments before the interval as he headed over, and it was a small wonder that the first half ended goalless.
Cooper did not make any changes at the break and, against all the evidence of the opening 45 minutes, his patience paid dividends.
Roberts’ hooked cross was flicked on by Jay Fulton to Brewster inside the box, and the England youth international fired into the roof of the net for his seventh goal in 15 appearances since joining the Swans on loan.
Improbable Swans win
Remarkably, it got even better for the hosts when they were awarded a penalty after Reach brought Roberts down as Swansea’s Wales international attempted to meet a cross.
Ayew took the spot-kick, hesitated and sent Joe Wildsmith the wrong way to give Swansea a scarcely believable 2-0 lead.
Brewster had an opportunity to extend that advantage when a superb Naughton pass put him through on goal, but his shot hit the side netting.
Wednesday gave themselves a late lifeline when substitute Nuhiu headed in with around three of the additional seven minutes left.
A series of set-pieces for the Owls followed, but they were unable to snatch a late winner as they were left to rue their wasteful first-half finishing as Swansea held on for an improbable win.
Swansea manager Steve Cooper:
“It was hard fought in the end – didn’t love us first-half. We’re better than that, particularly with the ball.
“Our positioning wasn’t quite right and we had to change formation, things like that. But we can play much better than that with ball.
“In the second half we looked a lot more dangerous. The second goal, I know it’s a penalty, but if you have a look at the move for it, it’s fantastic and that’s exactly how we want to play.
“So we were delighted to go 2-0 up, but we did get a bit nervy late on.”
Sheffield Wednesday manager Garry Monk:
“It’s so, so frustrating. We had dominance in the first half and we should have been in a good position going into half-time. If you do that it makes it difficult for the other team.
“For all the dominance and good chances we had, we couldn’t score and when you do that it leaves the door ajar.
“We made a couple of poor decisions and I was left thinking ‘How have we got ourselves in this position?’ That’s been a bit of a theme this season.
“We played so well in the first half, but in the second we had some poor decisions and a few minutes of madness.”