|Sheffield United 2 v 1 Leeds United|
Saturday, 10th February 2018 Kick-off 12:30
Match Preview: Sheffield United v Leeds United - can Whites beat Blades in crucial clash?
Saturday, 10th Feb 2018 11:24 by @LucasMonk_
Today heralds the beginning of a new era at Leeds United - as Paul Heckingbottom takes charge of his first match since being appointed as the club’s new head coach on Tuesday.
Leeds United face a momentous televised match - one that could define the season for either of its participants - against Yorkshire rivals Sheffield United at Bramall Lane this afternoon.
Following their doleful defeat at home to Cardiff City last weekend, the Whites enter this contest 10th in the Championship table having still failed to win a match since the turn of the year - and, crucially, are seven points behind Bristol City, who occupy the last of the play-off positions.
A barren run of results, rampant indiscipline and feeble performances precipitated the departure of Thomas Christiansen last Sunday but after initial scepticism from supporters, Paul Heckingbottom, his replacement, made a positive impression in his first press conference owing to his assertive persona.
Indeed, many followers of the Whites have even admitted to being extremely excited for today’s match - but a defeat here would be calamitous for their play-off hopes if both Bristol City and Fulham were to win their matches against Sunderland and Bolton Wanderers respectively.
Meanwhile, there is also a palpable desire on Sheffield United’s part to secure victory in a clash that sees a lot more than mere bragging rights at stake. Chris Wilder’s Blades, who sit 8th in the table, must also procure three precious points from this game if they are to remain in touching distance of the play-offs; defeat could see an aperture of eight points formed between his side and Bristol City with 15 games remaining.
This match could be plausibly described as the biggest of the season for both sides, and it will doubtless be a fascinating encounter given the significance the full-time score could have come May.
Following goalkeeper Simon Moore’s red card away to Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Blades’ last outing, the fitness of Jamal Blackman, on loan from Chelsea, will be assessed before the game - with academy graduate Jake Eastwood the only alternative.
Paul Coutts, Kieron Freeman and David Brooks, the scorer of a late winner when Chris Wilder’s team were 2-1 victors at Elland Road in October, are all sidelined with injury.
Wilder could elect to deploy a flat five in midfield after Wolves carved his team asunder with ease last time out. Mark Duffy and Ryan Leonard, a January acquisition from Southend United, are in contention for starts here.
New head coach Paul Heckingbottom has suspensions and injuries aplenty to consider here.
Conor Shaughnessy and Luke Ayling are both out with injuries, whilst Samuel Saiz, Gaetano Berardi and Lam Cooper are suspended.
Heckingbottom is understood to favour a 4-4-2 formation - and Leeds fans could therefore see Kemar Roofe and Pierre-Michel Lasogga working in tandem up front.
Both teams hardly enter this contest in fine fettle; the hosts have won only once in their last six games, with Leeds having failed to win any of theirs since the turn of the year.
Sheffield United: LDDWLL
Leeds United: LDLLDL
Referee: Andrew Madley
Assistant Refs: Mark Russell and Lee Venamore
Fourth Official: Scott Duncan
Key Battle: Leon Clarke v Pontus Jansson
This crucial clash pits Clarke, the division’s second-highest goalscorer, against Sweden international Jansson, who had faced a battle to be fit to take on the Blades this afternoon.
33-year-old Clarke has scored 15 Championship goals thus far this season - his best return in the division since that of 2008-09, in which he scored eight goals for the Blades’ bitter rivals Sheffield Wednesday.
Jansson, meanwhile, has again been pivotal to Leeds United’s prospects this season by averaging a WhoScored statistical rating of 7.25. The defender wins 3.4 aerial duels and makes 9.6 clearances per match.
The battle between the two will most certainly be an intriguing one; a duel that could well determine the fate of the match and both of its participants.
Paul Heckingbottom hardly faces an auspicious beginning to his reign at Elland Road, with many observers suggesting that today’s match against Sheffield United is akin to a baptism of fire.
But the 40-year-old cut a self-assured figure in his first press conference as Leeds’ new head coach on Thursday and is likely to be unfazed when he takes charge of his new team for the first time later today.
This match will doubtless be a difficult one - with the Whites pitted against local rivals and fellow play-off aspirants in the Blades, and Heckingbottom against the wily Chris Wilder - but the brisk appointment of Thomas Christiansen’s successor has, to an appreciable degree, galvanised all associated with the club.
Heckingbottom and his new charges can’t be written off without a ball having been kicked and there remains every chance that he, luck permitting, could bring play-off football to Elland Road for the first time since 2009.
I hope my judgement at least has some rectitude, because Leeds would really benefit from a ‘new manager bounce’ this afternoon.
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Photo: Action Images
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