Sheffield United: Leon Clarke's return to goalscoring form could tip the balance in The Blades' favour
With six games of the season remaining and only a point between themselves and the play-off positions, the sight of Leon Clarke rediscovering his touch in front of goal could prove especially timely for a Sheffield United team chasing back to back promotions.
Clarke was on target for the first time in three months during Monday’s draw with Cardiff City at Bramall Lane and although his effort did not secure the win United’s performance warranted, manager Chris Wilder has welcomed the centre-forward’s return to form at such a pivotal stage of the campaign.
“I thought it was a great goal and they (strikers) always get a kick out of doing that,” he said. “I thought we played some really great football too. There’s different ways to score, I know that. But the most important thing is that the ball ends up in the back of they net which it did.”
United travel to Barnsley this weekend ninth in the Championship table but knowing that a victory could see them climb above Middlesbrough, who are sixth, before Tony Pulis’ squad visit South Yorkshire on Tuesday. Although his side have lost just once in seven outings, Wilder bemoaned United’s failure to make the most of the opportunities they created both before City’s 92nd minute equaliser and during Good Friday’s draw with Brentford, which also finished 1-1.
“We just have to find that little bit at the end that means we’ve not left everybody walking away thinking we’ve not got the right result,” Wilder continued. “We should have had a penalty when Lee (Evans) was fouled (by Sol Bamba) but we’ve still had enough to take the match from one goal to two. The one they got should have been nothing more than a consolation.”
Arguably the biggest decision facing Wilder ahead of the trip to Oakwell is whether to stick with the partnership between Clarke and David Brooks or recall captain Billy Sharp, who dropped to the bench against City. Having seen his first-choice partnership spawn just two goals in eight fixtures, the 50-year-old recalled Brooks for the meeting with Neil Warnock’s team in an attempt to reinvigorate United’s attack. Despite failing to score since January 1, Clarke retained his place after dovetailing well with the Wales international earlier this term. The smart money is on them starting Saturday’s derby, providing Brooks reports no ill-effects following a recent bout of glandular fever. Despite missing much of last season’s League One title winning campaign through injury, Clarke has scored 16 times so far this term.
“David put a real shift in,” Wilder said, explaining why Clayton Donaldson rather than Sharp was introduced when the youngster eventually succumbed to fatigue. “The game opened up and it was right that we had a little bit of ‘stretch’ down the sides.”