Barnsley 2 Tranmere Rovers 0 - Valerien Ismael relieved to avoid joining Leeds United as an FA Cup casualty

A professional performance is an under-rated compliment – what fans of Leeds United and Huddersfield Town wouldn’t give for that level of praise right now.

Barnsley's Cauley Woodrow celebrates with Herbie Kane after he scores from the spot to make it 2-0. Pictures: Jonathan Gawthorpe

But that is exactly what Barnsley delivered yesterday to secure progression to the fourth round of the FA Cup, and with it, the continuation of their impressive development under Valerien Ismael.

Riding high in the Championship since the Frenchman’s arrival, 11 wins in 16 games have transformed Barnsley from relegation candidates into surprise play-off hopefuls, and that upward trajectory now includes safe passage into the last 32 of the most famous cup competition in the world.

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There are enough traps laid on FA Cup third-round weekend by hungry minnows out to snare the ill-prepared big guns without causing self-inflicted wounds, and Barnsley managed to avoid both.

Barnsley's Michal Helik scores the opening goal.

Ismael picked a strong team to face League Two opponents, paying the competition the respect it deserves and that few of his contempories traditionally give it, to give his team the best chance possible of not being another giant-killing statistic.

It took them nearly an hour to wear down a lively Tranmere side – managed by the former Reds boss Keith Hill – but with Michal Helik’s close-range header and Cauley Woodrow’s late penalty, their class eventually told.

“It’s a cup game, it’s a fight. If you see today, Leeds are out,” said Ismael, in a statement meant more as a cautionary tale than any goading of Yorkshire rivals.

“It was the same for us, a tough game, but we did our job today. If you look at other results in the Cup, there are some big surprises, so I am delighted we are through with a clean sheet.

“It was a perfect afternoon for us.

“We defended very well today, very good box defending, excellent mentality, and a clean sheet finally for us is a good feeling.”

The reason he gave for picking a strong team is often the very same explanation managers who make numerous changes give – with their next Championship game in mind.

Only this time, with a home date with another side with promotion aspirations in Swansea in five days time, Ismael did not want to ‘disrupt the rhythm of my team’ by bringing in an abundance of fresh faces.

Why would anyone want to disrupt the rhythm that Barnsley have built up, one that has seen them surge into ninth place, three points shy of the Championship’s play-off positions?

Helik and Mads Andersen remained tight at the back, Callum Styles continued his development on the left side of midfield, Alex Mowatt returned from injury into midfield and managed 72 minutes, and Woodrow and Conor Chaplin – Barnsley’s first-choice strike-force – led the line as always.

Woodrow and Chaplin both had chances to score late in the first half, after Barnsley, so used to being underdogs in Championship fixtures, at first appeared reticent to accept the mantle of aggressors.

Tranmere’s threat came from Morgan Ferrier through the middle and Kayne Woolery down the right, but it was former Bradford City striker James Vaughan who had their best chance, firing a 
Wollery cross straight at Brad Collins.

Collins was in goal for Walton in one of the few changes to the first-choice XI by Ismael.

“It was time for Brad to play to give him an opportunity to show his quality,” explained the manager. “He had a brilliant game, so we are overjoyed to have two top keepers in our squad.”

Barnsley exuded the most quality and before they could start to panic about not breaking through, they unlocked Tranmere’s defence.

Neat play between Luke Thomas – a half-time substitute for Domink Frieser, one of the fringe players given a chance he didn’t take – and Herbie Kane created a heading opportunity for Helik which the Polish defender gobbled up.

“When the game is so close, you might need an opportunity from a set-piece and they are another good situation for us to use,” said Ismael, who has seen Helik score three goals in the last two home games now, each one from a set-piece.

“We have to work hard on scoring goals with the big opportunities we get as well.”

That looked to be it until Woodrow was rewarded for an afternoon of tireless running with a 94th-minute penalty after Thomas had been fouled on the edge of the penalty area by Jay Spearing. Woodrow slammed home the penalty for his 10th goal of the season.

It wasn’t dramatic. It wasn’t particularly exciting. But it was very professional from Barnsley.

Barnsley: Collins, Sollbauer (Sibbick 63),Helik, Andersen, Brittain (Williams 79) Kane, Mowatt (Palmer 72), Styles, Frieser (Thomasat 46), Woodrow, Chaplin (Adeboyejoat 63). Unused substitues: Walton, Schmidt, Oduor, Moon.

Tranmere: Rovers: Davies, O’Connor, Ray, Monthe, Ridehalgh (Burton 76), Woolery, Lewis, Spearing, Khan (Morris 81), Ferrier (Blackett-Taylor 67), Vaughan. Unused substitutes: Ellis, Murphy, Hayde, Nugent, Banks.

Referee: O Langford (West Midlands).

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