HEAD COACH Carlos Carvalhal believes “three or four players” at Sheffield Wednesday have yet to reach the standards of last season.
The Owls were 90 minutes away from the Premier League before losing the play-off final to Hull City in May, and were tipped as contenders for automatic promotion this term.
But with a third of the season gone, Wednesday sit 10th in the Championship, although they are only two points off the top six after 16 games.
Several players who excelled last season, like top scorer Fernando Forestieri, Scotland international Barry Bannan and winger Ross Wallace, have all failed to transfer consistently their form from last season to this.
Forestieri, of course, caused a rift at the start of the season when he refused to play for the Owls, amid reported interested of a £10m move to Newcastle United or Derby County.
The Argentinian has netted just three times this season, in 15 outings, and seems to have lost the spark and clinical finishing which terrorised Championship defences last term.
But, after a fortnight’s training without a game during the international break, Carvalhal yesterday revealed he had seen signs that “the real Fernando” was back.
“Let me tell you about Fernando,” said Carvalhal. “I think we have Fernando back again.
“These last two weeks, but especially this week, he has been very, very strong, very powerful, with fantastic attitude and I am sure if he expresses – and he will express on Saturday – what he is doing these two weeks, we will be with better Fernando again.
“I am very happy about that of course, because we are waiting for the best of Fernando. In reality he is back 100 per cent to the Fernando, the big days at Sheffield Wednesday.
“When they improve – not just one, but three or four (players) – the collective will increase and we will score more goals and do better in the future.
“Even though the team is playing well we expect more from some players and Fernando is one of the players. He is one that found exactly the moment and is training very well and the real Fernando we know is back again.
“It’s not just Fernando who hasn’t performed at 100 per cent just yet. There are players we expect more from, and they will do more in the future. We know from last season they can do better.
“If we talk about Fernando, we must also talk about three or four players that we expect more. We are happy with the team, but the individual performances they can do better.
“When those three or four find their maximum, we will be stronger, I am absolutely sure. We need this.”
Carvalhal refused to identify which players he feels have not replicated their form from last season, other than praising Forestieri, so not to put added pressure on them.
But he was forced to drop Bannan last month, for the trip to Cardiff City, after returning “exhausted” from international duty with Scotland. He was left out by Gordon Strachan as the Scots lost at Wembley to England a week ago, and returned refreshed to Hillsborough.
Former Burnley winger Wallace, a regular last season, has been in and out of the starting XI since August with extra competition provided by the likes of £5m record signing Adam Reach.
But he has impressed Carvalhal after coming on as a substitute in the last three games, despite back-to-back defeats against Derby County and Ipswich Town.
“The signals from Fernando this week, and other players, was very positive,” said Carvalhal.
“Ross Wallace is a good example; he’s another player who is training very near to the maximum which we know from last season. He’s a player that has not played in the first XI in the last few games, but when he came on the pitch he was the player who most affected the game.
“This is something I appreciate, and I mentioned to him in front of his colleagues. I like this kind of attitude. He didn’t play, but when he got on the pitch, he tried to change things and provide a new dynamic.
“He is close to the maximum. His confidence has come up because he affected the game and is more near the real Ross Wallace we know from last season.”
Carvalhal said he opted to start with Bannan wide on the right recently, before allowing the player to come inside to his natural position, in a bid to avoid him being man-marked out of the game.
But Carvalhal denied this was the reason for his below-par displays, including at Huddersfield when he was substituted at half-time. He said: “The problem is not this, the problem was when he was in the national team he did a lot of training, played games, and when he came back to us he was completely exhausted.
“After we left him out for one game, we saw a massive difference. He was more fresh this week, he didn’t play in the national team, and was the real Barry Bannan.”