By Rob Atkinson
A week that started on a historical low for United with defeat at Rochdale in the FA Cup has definitely got better as it's gone on. After that bitter blow - wounding the pride more than any prospects of success this season - moves have been afoot behind the scenes to set about healing those wounds, restoring that pride - at least in part. The arrival of two genuinely pacy wingers of pedigree at the club in Cameron Stewart and Jimmy Kebe, something that has been needed for far too long, is a real boost. How instantaneous the effect of this can be is something that remains to be seen. It's another "Cup Final" weekend for one of our wannabe rivals, and that always makes the going that bit tougher.
The match at Sheffield Wednesday last season was sullied by the actions of an immature fan on the one side and an immature manager on the other. The latter offender, Dave Jones, will not be a factor in this season's meeting, having lost his job in the most predictable sacking of the season so far. Eyes will be peeled in an enhanced police presence for any sighting of the other negative from that Hillsborough night - but it is to be hoped that football will dominate over and above any such irrelevant considerations.
The logical conclusion after United's week of recruitment is that they will go into this game looking at some stage to employ width, so it may well be that the 3-5-2 experiment will bite the dust. Then again, new signings tend to be ushered in gently from the bench, so it's possible that an initially conservative approach may look to frustrate a home side unbeaten in its last four games, before introducing more attacking elements later on. Whichever way selection policy goes, manager Brian McDermott certainly has many more options than at any other time in his tenure, and the shape of the team at Hillsborough will be fascinating to see.
For the relegation-fighting Owls, Roger Johnson's loan spell from Wolves has ended and they will also be without Michail Antonio with the continuation of a knee problem. Defender Lewis Buxton is also missing - but sadly the scrum-capped thug that is Miguel Llera seems set to reprise his knees and elbows performance of this fixture last time out, when he seemed to be granted a license to batter anyone in a United shirt. Perhaps Rudy Austin could be given a breakfast of raw meat and detailed to "look after" the pugnacious Llera? It would be nice to think so.
On form and league standing, this should be a win for United - but the Sheffield teams, driven on by their desperate fans, always seem to find that extra few percent against Yorkshire's top club. Having said that, Leeds owe a big debt to their own fans as they attempt to begin erasing the memory of that horribly effort-free performance at Rochdale. So the motivation stakes may be that bit more level than usual - and there is the new X-Factor of attacking width in the United camp, something that could well have repercussions beyond the strictly obvious, if more room is created in midfield for the talented Luke Murphy to express himself rather more than he's been able to so far in this campaign.
A draw seems a not unlikely outcome for this match - but United need to beware. If they get off to a bad start and fall behind, it will be an extremely difficult task to claw back any lead Wednesday gain. It's an emotional game for the Sheffielders, denied their own derby day until next season in League One. Leeds will have to roll up the sleeves and fight for the right to impose their own higher class. I'm marginally in favour of a repeat of last season's scoreline when the game finished at 1-1 - just a minor detail of the events of that turbulent evening. It should, at least, be a little more peaceful this time around.
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