Luton Town 0, Barnsley 0
(SkyBet League One)
Barnsley concluded a challenging programme of four matches in 11 days against top-eight teams with a thoroughly deserved point away to second-placed Luton Town.
In fact, if either side deserved to win this most entertaining of goalless draws it was the Reds, who were bidding for maximum points from the frenetic festive fixures, having already beaten other promotion rivals Blackpool, Peterborough United and Charlton Athletic to climb into fourth spot in the table.
Luton are unbeaten at home this season, but Daniel Stendel’s side pressed high up the pitch right from the start and never allowed them to dictate the pattern and tempo of the game, as they usually do at Kenilworth Road.
Such a positive attitude made it obvious that the Reds were intent on achieving a significant victory, rather than settling for a hard-earned draw with which they had ultimately to be satisfied, and they came agonisingly close to that objective in a hard-fought encounter which was a credit to League One.
Cauley Woodrow, back at the club where he started out nine years ago, missed a great chance early on and Alex Mowatt was a whisker away with a blockbuster in stoppage time.
It speaks volumes for Barnsley’s current standard of performance, and the confidence that is running through the side, that they came away disappointed with a point against a side unbeaten in their last 13 matches and occupying one of the automatic promotion places.
Showing two changes from the starting eleven against Charlton three days earlier – Kenny Dougall being preferred to that game’s man-of-the-match Mike Bahre, and Ben Williams replacing the injured Dani Pinillos – the Reds could, and possibly should, have been in front in the first quarter-of-an-hour when Woodrow and Thiam inter-changed passes to open up the Luton defence only for the former Hatter to send his shot inches wide.
The home team had to defend, desperately at times, but Barnsley could not find a way through. Several shots were blocked and goalkeeper James Shea commanded his area when the crosses came flying in.
Another former Luton player, Cameron McGeehan did manage a shot on target, but it was easily saved by Shea.
Luton struggled to escape from their own half, but when they did Adam Davies had to make a very good save low down to his right from Alan McCormack after the home team had forced a corner. Then Andrew Shinnie sliced his shot wide after being set up by James Collins and shortly afterwards saw another effort comfortably collected by Davies.
The second half started at a similarly high tempo, with the Reds again taking the initiative, and twice in quick succession they threatened to break the deadlock. First Mamadou Thiam was just wide with a well-struck shot and then Brad Potts saw a goalbound effort deflect off the outstretched leg of ex-Red Matty Pearson and over the bar for a fruitless corner.
Gradually Luton came more into the game as an attacking force and the Reds’ defence had to deal with a series of inviting crosses from overlapping full-back James Justin, from one of which Danny Hylton sent a header narrowly wide.
Undaunted, Barnsley continued to seek ways and means of snatching the winner and head coach Daniel Stendel sent on Jacob Brown as an attacking partner for Woodrow when Thiam was substituted in the 76th minute.
Deep into five minutes of stoppage time it looked as though their positivity and persistence were to be rewarded when Alex Mowatt surged forward after a good spell of possession football to let fly with a thunderous left-footer that whizzed a fraction wide with Shea looking on helplessly.
Defences may have taken the honours, but there was plenty of action throughout to keep the sell-out New Year’s Day crowd entertained, and on this evidence both teams look certain to be involved in the battle for promotion right to the end of the campaign.
Luton Town: Shea; Stacey, Bradley, Pearson, Justin, McCormack, Mpanzu, Shinnie (Lua-Lua, 90+5 mins), Lee (Cornick, 88 mins, Berry, 90+1 mins), Hylton, Collins.
Barnsley: Davies; Cavare, Pinnock, Lindsay, Williams, McGeehan, Thiam (Brown, 76 mins), Dougall (Bahre, 64 mins), Mowatt, Potts (Adeboyejo, 89 mins), Woodrow.
Bookings: Shinnie (Luton), Pinnock (Barnsley).
Referee: John Brooks.
Attendance: 9,926 (845 Reds).