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Three Players to Watch: Matchday 36 vs. Sheffield United

Can Fulham maintain their good run of form against Sheffield United?

Reading v Sheffield United - Sky Bet Championship
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Aleksander Mitrovic and Ryan Sessegnon.

Those have been the two names that have been on the scoresheet and have been on absolute fire during Fulham’s rich vein of form. Add in the fact that you have Tom Cairney constantly poking and prodding Derby’s defense and you understand how they were able to get a comfortable 2-0 before you were able to even get comfortable in your seat at Pride Park or online. Sure, Fulham took their foot off the gas pedal afterwards, but the club were able to claim another victory and, just as important, momentum just in case the two sides see each other in the playoffs.

Just like that, Fulham are sitting in fourth place and are continuing their assent towards the Championship. However, their work is no where near close to being done. Plenty of supporters are hoping the club find a way towards automatic promotion and missing the stress and unpredictability of the playoffs entirely. That is understandable, but stats and form tables will tell you that it will be quite difficult to see Fulham catch up with Wolverhampton Wanderers and Cardiff City. Weird things have happened in football, but sometimes, having lowered expectations is what leads to savoring your club achieving higher targets. But hey, this post isn’t here to suggest how best to handle the final two months of the season.

What I can tell you is Sheffield United are up next and they will do their best not to go quiet in the night. They may be sitting in eighth place after being in the top six for the majority of the season, but manager Chris Wilder will make sure to have a side that will make it hard for Fulham to break down. According to Ben Mayhew’s work at experimental 361, the Blades are only worse than Wolves in expected goals against and are within the top four in shot prevention. But with some instability in goal thanks to Simon Moore and Jamal Blackman each garnering over 1,000 minutes in the Championship, that actual goal total of 40 is much higher than what it should be.

Still, all it takes is one game for all the expectations and confidence to go out the window. There’s no perfect example of it like a midweek fixture on three days rest. Here’s hoping manager Slavisa Jokanovic can get the squad rotation right to collect all three points.

In the mean time, here are today’s three players to watch from Sheffield United.

Leon Clarke

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First up was the 33-year old striker that not only has been tearing up the Championship, but was an absolute nightmare to Fulham in the reverse fixture. If not for him, Fulham’s win would have been much more comfortable instead of the thriller that it was back in November. If you were to look at his radar, Clarke has no business scoring 13 goals from open play on just 68 total shots this campaign. But if you were to look at his history, you wouldn’t completely right him off just yet because he hasn’t himself.

If you were to start a career the exact same way Clarke did, you wouldn’t have been blamed for deciding to give up on football and find a more stable job. Instead, it took until he found then League One Coventry City in 2013 – nine years after his professional debut – for him to become a prevalent member of a football league club’s starting XI without going on loan. In that season, Clarke went on to score 18 goals in 29 appearances. It was enough to convince Wolves, the same club that developed him as a youngster to sign him during their push back to the Championship in 2014. Things looked like they stalled again until 2015/16 when he terrorized League One opponents again at Bury. From there, Sheffield United picked him up and was a major piece during their promotion campaign last season. The rest, as you can say, is history.

John Fleck

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Next up, we go from one late blooming star to a former teenage prodigy. You have to pinch yourself in amazement to realize that it has been a decade since Fleck made his professional debut with Rangers; with the assumption being that he would be Scotland’s greatest player of his era. Instead, Fleck is 26 and it took until this season for him to play at this tier of football and establish himself into the squad rotation. It surely has taken a while for Fleck to return to public consciousness, but he has really turned himself into a solid box-to-box central midfielder in Chris Wilder’s system.

Not only is he leading the club in chances created (54) and is second to Mark Duffy in assists (5), but he is also in the top five in both tackles (39) and interceptions (47). Name any task and Fleck can do it for you, including being the go-to man in corners taken at 84. Who knows how far the former prodigy can go from here. After all, he still hasn’t received a cap for the Scotland National team. But if he can continue his development at the prime of his career, maybe he’ll have a storybook tale to tell after all.

Jack O’Connell

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Lastly, we take a look at the youngest of Sheffield United’s back three. O’Connell may be just 23 years old, but he has established himself into a very useful center back with 203 appearances in professional football already under his belt. Among the other items he has been guiding two clubs towards promotion, including Rochdale in 2013/14 where he was the club’s captain at just 19. His time with Brentford was not beneficial with regards to playing time, but O’Connell has been a real force since he has joined the Blades.

While not a ball playing center back, per se, he is a strong lad that can be able to get on the end of crosses and long balls. His battle with Mitrovic in the air will surely be a treat to watch tonight.