SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY put their promotion credentials to the test at Middlesbrough today with defender Jeremy Helan insisting “our best is yet to come”.
Only a late winner for Ipswich Town on Saturday stopped the Owls from sneaking into the Championship play-off positions, following emphatic back-to-back home wins over Wolverhampton and Birmingham City.
A 4-1 victory over Wolves was followed by this Boxing Day success against the Blues, which saw the Owls canter to another three points thanks to a brace from Fernando Forestieri and one goal from Kieran Lee.
It sets up nicely a Riverside meeting today against a second-placed Boro team whose game at Blackburn Rovers on Saturday was washed out.
In fact, Middlesbrough have not played for nine days, while the Owls have played twice since Aitor Karanka’s side beat Brighton 3-0 on December 19.
Not that Wednesday will use that as an excuse, according to Frenchman Helan, with victory today in the teatime kick-off possibly taking the Owls as high as fifth in the Championship.
“Recovery is going to be very important for us,” said former Manchester City youngster Helan.
“Middlesbrough haven’t played (at the weekend) so they will be fresher than us.
“We are going to have to be strong, but the last two games have shown that we can compete.
“We will go there with confidence, and, hopefully, the legs will follow the mind.
“The Championship is very intense. We want to push for the play-offs, they want to push for promotion, too, so it will be a big game.
“If you are ready mentally, at least we know we can give something.
“The game could be a big turning point, it’s not something to take lightly.
“If we win at Middlesbrough, it would be a good win. We are pushing for the play-offs, but if we can get closer to Middlesbrough then you never know what could happen.
“We don’t go there with pressure, that will be on them.”
Asked if Wednesday can finish in the top six, Helan replied: “I feel like we have the players, the quality. Knowing that we have a new manager – his first time in England – new players, a fresh squad, we couldn’t ask for more after first six months. The best is to come.”
Speculation has seen Carvalhal linked with the top job at Swansea City, but Helan sees no reason why the Owls’ head coach needs to leave Hillsborough.
“Carlos is doing a very good job, I don’t see a reason for him to leave,” he said.
“He could get promotion with this club. What he has done here has been recognised by people.
“It’s a good job, so why should he leave?”
Based on their last two outings, Wednesday certainly look like promotion material.
Missing injured Keiren Westwood, rookie goalkeeper Joe Wildsmith continued to impress with another clean sheet for the hosts. But it was in attack where the Owls impressed with some slick football.
Twice Gary Hooper – the on-loan Norwich City striker – went close to breaking the deadlock, only to have a ‘goal’ ruled out for offside, before Forestieri’s delightful back-heel created space for Jack Hunt to set up Hooper, whose effort was deflected wide.
Two goals in as many minutes, though, settled the contest.
First, right-back Hunt once more was the provider as he picked out Forestieri at the far post to bundle the ball home.
Birmingham’s Gary Rowett claimed Forestieri handled the ball, but the Blues’ chief had no one to blame but his own defence for the second.
Jonathan Spector’s clearance hit a team-mate to leave Lee in the clear and he beat Tomasz Kusxczak in a one-on-one.
Hooper, Atdhe Nuhiu and Barry Bannan –whose non-stop running and intelligent passing was instrumental in the victory – had chances to make it 3-0.
But Forestieri added a third at the start of the second half, breaking clear from his own half then hurtling down the left flank before cutting in to curl home his shot in front of the Kop.
The Blues could have made it interesting if they could have scored. Jon Toral had a ‘goal’ disallowed, Wildsmith denied Jonathan Grounds and Michael Morrison headed against the crossbar.
Forestieri is the first Wednesday striker since Marcus Tudgay to reach double figures in the Championship in 2009-10.
Successive doubles have seen the Argentinian striker bag 10 goals this season – Nuhiu was last season’s top league scorer with eight goals.
Helan believes the former Watford forward is key to any promotion challenge for the Owls. “He is a special player for us,” he said. “We have some quality players, and he’s one of them. He has given us something we have missed, those goals.
“The form that he has been showing, you have to keep a player like that fit. He gives that little extra that a team can miss. He can produce something in one second.
“Even if he doesn’t score, he can be dangerous, maybe assist, because he can do everything in the last third of the field.”
Wednesday’s surge to seventh in the Championship has been based on solid home form, comprising seven wins out of 12 at Hillsborough. Only today’s hosts Middlesbrough have won in S6 this term, in August.
It is in stark contrast to last season when the Owls won just five times at home in 23 attempts.
“Everyone is happy, from the crowd to the players,” said Helan.
“Two games, two wins, 4-1 and 3-0; we couldn’t ask for more.
“We have the crowd behind us, and everyone has been waiting a long time to have a team doing well. It has given us a lift.”
Sheffield Wednesday: Wildsmith, Hutchinson (Wiggins 81), Loovens, Nuhiu, Hooper, Lee, Hunt, Wallace (Helan 65), Pudil, Bannan, Forestieri (McGugan 71). Unused substitutes: Price, Semedo, Joao, Sougou.
Birmingham: Birmingham: Kuszczak, Caddis, Morrison, Spector, Grounds, Davis, Kieftenbeld, Maghoma, Toral (Shinnie 77), Gray (Solomon-Otabor 71), Vaughan (Donaldson 72). Unused substitutes: Legzdins, Robinson, Brock-Madsen, Halford.
Referee: T Harrington (Cleveland).