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North End boss expects tough encounter with Blades

Leon Clarke has 14 goals this season, including nine in four games in November
Leon Clarke has 14 goals this season, including nine in four games in November

Alex Neil knows Preston will come up against a fearless Sheffield United when the sides meet at Deepdale on Saturday.

The Blades are back in the second tier this season after winning the League One title and have won many admirers with their attacking approach,

Neil is seemingly one of those but he will be looking to close the five-point gap between the sides ahead of kick-off, Chris Wilder’s men currently occupying the final play-off place.

Having made a flying start on the back of promotion, United are however four games without a win after their 2-1 defeat at home to fellow play-off contenders Bristol City last time out.

“I think it will be a great game,” the PNE boss said.

“Sheffield United have done well on the back of the high of last season when they won the league and came up.

“Their shape and how they have gone about it has been really refreshing.

“They have attacked the games with no fear which is great.

“I have seen them live three times this season and they have been impressive every time.”

Leading the attack is former PNE loanee Leon Clarke.

The 32-year-old is in the form of his life, having had a largely stop-start career 
taking in spells at Wolves, Sheffield Wednesday, 
Coventry, Bury and an unremarkable loan spell at Deepdale, one goal coming in six appearances back in 2011.

He is fresh from winning the Championship player of the month award for November though, having hit nine goals in four games, including a hat-trick in the remarkable 5-4 defeat to Fulham, and all four goals in the 4-1 win over Hull.

“He’s had a fantastic season hasn’t he?” Neil said of the 14-goal front man.

“What Chris Wilder has done is find a system and shape which really lends 
itself to the players.

“I think each and every one of them has found a niche in the way they play.”

Neil admits that Wilder’s set-up poses a different 
puzzle for his side to solve on Saturday.

Their gung-ho approach, carried over from winning the league last season, meant that the 1-1 draw against Birmingham at the end of November was their first stalemate since March.

“They are quite unique in terms of their system,” the PNE boss said.

“They are one of the only sides I have come across where they have overlapping centre-backs down the flanks, that is a new one.

“It has been very effective for them and it is something we have to be particularly aware of.”

Paul Coutts will not be facing his former club this weekend, the midfielder ruled out for the rest of the season after suffering a fractured tibia in the Blades’ 3-1 win over Burton a month ago.

The side will be led by Clarke’s strike partner Billy Sharp, who has played his part with eight goals.