Burton Albion will look to move further clear of the Championship relegation zone and prevent Sheffield United moving to the summit in the process when the two clash at the Pirelli Stadium on Friday (7.45pm).

Chris Wilder's Blades are one of this season's surprise packages, having hit the ground at a stunning pace following their romp to the League One title last term.

Ahead of the clash, we spoke to the Sheffield Star's Danny Hall about exceeding expectations, incredible team spirit and the impact of former Brewer Mark Duffy...


Leon Clarke heads in one of his four goals in the Blades' 4-1 win over Hull City
Leon Clarke heads in one of his four goals in the Blades' 4-1 win over Hull City

While Bolton Wanderers and Millwall were both quickly placed among the bookies' favourites for relegation - alongside the Brewers - after their promotion out of League One in 2016/17, the general pre-season consensus was that Wilder's Blades would adapt well during their first season back in the second tier since 2011.

After all, they had just waltzed to the League One title, winning 30 of their 46 games and finishing 14 points clear of their nearest challenger.

United did not look to make major changes to the squad that had earned them that success either.

So would a third-tier title-winning side be able to bed in quickly and mix it in the top half of such a fiercely competitive division?

"There were hopes and optimism, of course, which you'd expect after winning the league by such a margin the previous year," says Hall.

"But I think even the most optimistic Blade wouldn't have said they'd be in the automatic shake-up at this point.

"The Championship was, on the face of it at least, a different beast entirely to League One, and United were up against squads that cost £20m and £30m.

"But no amount of money can buy the spirit and work ethic that Chris Wilder has instilled in his side, and despite many pundits' assertion that their success so far is purely down to momentum, they have some very talented players too."


Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder
Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder

A crucial reason for the Blades' impressive form to date is the way they have attacked every game.

Comprehensive victories over the likes of Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday and table-topping Wolverhampton Wanderers point to that - and they will surely show that same fearlessness at the Pirelli tomorrow.

"The message from Wilder throughout has been to play without fear," adds Hall.

"The way they set up - with a back three, wingbacks acting as wingers and overlapping full-backs getting into the box at will - is no secret, but many teams haven't been able to deal with it, save for maybe QPR and Cardiff City.

"United press from the front two. Leon Clarke and Billy Sharp cover ground like men possessed, and the midfield triumvirate of Paul Coutts, John Fleck and Mark Duffy keep them ticking over.

"In the derby against Wednesday in particular, the Owls couldn't cope with United and when they had a spell and got back on level terms, Wilder's men then showed their mental strength to go back in front."


Burton Albion have not won at the Pirelli in two months
Burton Albion have not won at the Pirelli in two months

Nigel Clough said as much earlier in the week.

If Burton are to fight their way out of their current home slump, they will have to work hard and earn the success.

And you can take it as read that Sheffield United aren't likely to offer any free points this week.

"I've no doubt they'll approach it exactly as they have every game this season, with a relentlessness that many teams have struggled to contain," says Hall.

"If Burton do get a result on Friday, then they'll have earned it and Wilder will no doubt be the first to acknowledge that."


Mark Duffy in action for Sheffield United

One United player will be more familiar than most with the Pirelli Stadium surroundings when everything gets underway on Friday.

Blades attacking midfielder Duffy enjoyed a stellar season on loan with the Brewers in 2015/16, when he was one of the outstanding players in helping Burton to that historic promotion into the Championship.

He was often a matchwinner then for Albion - so could he prove their undoing this time around?

"It's a tough one to pick one danger man, as United are truly greater than the sum of their parts," adds Hall.

"Leon Clarke scored four goals against Hull last time out, so he's an obvious candidate, whereas David Brooks has that bit of class that can change a game in a heartbeat.

Mark Duffy scores a fine goal in Burton Albion's win at Port Vale in 2015/16

"Fleck, Coutts and Duffy - who Burton fans will already know plenty about - keep United ticking over, while Jack O'Connell is a colossus at the back.

"Then there's Billy Sharp, scorer of 30 goals last season and six this.

"Any of United's players could be described as key men, but personally, I think Duffy is their one to watch."


Goalkeeper Jamal Blackman is fit and available for selection again following a back injury sustained last month.

Right-back George Baldock is a worry, though, and utility man Chris Basham will likely fill in at right-back if he is not ready.