Sheffield United: Why results on the road, starting at Norwich City this weekend, will be just as important as those at home

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder: David Klein/Sportimage
Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder: David Klein/Sportimage

Earlier this month, after watching his team emerge emboldened from the Christmas schedule, Chris Wilder claimed Sheffield United's results at home will decide if they are competing at Premier League level next season.

But a quick glance at its away schedule, beginning with this weekend's visit to Norwich City, suggests performances on the road must be afforded equal importance in the race for top-flight football.

Saturday's match at Carrow Road is the second installment of a testing and potentially pivotal six match sequence which started at Swansea and also sees Wilder's side face all three teams above them in the Championship table before the end of March.

With 18 games of the campaign remaining, it is still too early to draw any definitive conclusions about how the scramble for a top two and top six finish will eventually turn out. But neither Wilder nor Daniel Farke, who is equally determined to manage the weight and pressure upon his side's shoulders, can pretend their clash is anything other than hugely significant.

Win, and United will climb above City into second; albeit on goal difference. Lose, and the gap between themselves and their rivals from Norfolk will stretch to six points. Leaders Leeds, who host United on March 16, could be a further one ahead if they dispatch Rotherham at New York Stadium.

If Wilder's men do prevail at City, it could represent a key moment in the battle for automatic promotion with City and Marcelo Bielsa's men set to meet at Elland Road in 10 days time. Leeds then face Middlesbrough and Swansea, who Wilder predicted could "click at any time" during the aftermath of United's defeat in South Wales.

Norwich City manager Daniel Farke: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire.

Norwich City manager Daniel Farke: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire.

Before travelling to Leeds, United face trips to Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday while sandwiched in between them is an outing at West Bromwich Albion, who edged them out of third place after beating Bolton Wanderers this week.

With all of the division's leading four teams averaging more than 1.7 points per game, their head to head meetings could decide who secures automatic promotion and who must try and plot a course through the play-offs which are decided at Wembley on May 27.

Having established a six point gap between themselves and seventh, on the basis of the past three seasons United must now collect them at a rate of 1.4 per fixture to reach the average total required to secure top six qualification over the past three seasons. This rises to 2.2 in order to hit the top two mark, albeit from an admittedly small data set.

Other factors which make predictions so dangerous include the dynamics of the table and the players' psychology.

West Bromwich Albion manager Darren Moore: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

West Bromwich Albion manager Darren Moore: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

More than half of United's remaining fixtures are against clubs presently in the bottom half of the competition. But by the time they face Preston North End or Millwall for example, the opposition could either be fighting for survival or going about their business with absolute freedom after securing Championship status next term. It must also be remembered that two of those sides outside of the top 12 are Aston Villa and Stoke City, while local rivalry means Wednesday and Rotherham will be no pushovers either.

On the road, five of United's remaining eight fixtures pit them against sides in the upper half, beginning with Norwich this weekend. Wilder's theory that events at Bramall Lane will help decide his squad's destiny is indisputable. But so, given the opportunities they present to dent their fellow challengers' aspirations, will results on the road.

Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa.

Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa.