Sheffield Wednesday: In-form Zayatte helps plug Owls’ defensive leaks

Owls Kamil Zayatte
Owls Kamil Zayatte

For so long the man in the shadows, Kamil Zayatte has stepped up and delivered a string of solid performances when Sheffield Wednesday needed him most.

There were fears that the Owls would find it difficult to adequately replace skipper Glenn Loovens after the Dutch centre-back damaged his ankle in training earlier this month.

Grant Leadbitter

Grant Leadbitter

But life without Loovens has not been as painful as first thought and that is largely down to how well Zayatte has slotted in at the heart of the Owls rearguard in the last three matches.

With Loovens unlikely to return to action until April, Zayatte has shored things up defensively and has a big opportunity to cement his place in the side, as long as he stays clear of injuries.

Although he was included in Guinea’s squad for the recent Africa Cup of Nations, he played no part in the tournament due to a leg problem.

Injuries have plagued Zayatte throughout his spell at Hillsborough. A hamstring niggle sidelined him for a lengthy period earlier this season and now the defender is a minor doubt for tomorrow’s clash at home to Middlesbrough after suffering a knee knock at Millwall in midweek. Zayatte’s deal expires in the summer.

Wednesday head coach Stuart Gray is confident Zayatte and left-back Claude Dielna (knee) will train today and be passed fit to face second-placed Boro.

“Kamil is a full international, played in the Premier League, so he’s a good player,” Gray told The Star. “It has been frustrating for him injury wise, the same with Lewis Buxton. But the thing I do know is that Kamil has fantastic experience, a good habit of being in the right place - a good habit of being hit with the ball.

“In the first 20 minutes at Millwall, we were under the cosh, but we defended very well. Kamil has built up a little partnership with Tom Lees, so the most important thing is let’s hope he can stay in the team.

“Kamil has been away on African Nations duty so it’s been a bit stop-start for him, but he has got an opportunity because Glenn [Loovens] is out of the side and I think he has grabbed it.”

Gray admits he was relieved Wednesday ended a seven-match winless run at Millwall in midweek and was delighted the team scored three goals from open play.

“The passing and movement was excellent, the weight of pass and decision-making was all spot-on,” he said.

Buoyed by scoring at The Den, Atdhe Nuhiu, the Owls’ eight-goal leading marksman, will fancy his chances of adding to that tally, having scored three times in the last two meetings between Wednesday and Boro.

“Sometimes players have a lucky team; let’s hope it’s lucky for Atdhe on Saturday,” said Gray. “If Adthe fails, it won’t be for the lack of effort.

“Against Millwall, I thought he and Will Keane complemented each other very well. They dovetailed well, Atdhe won a few headers and Will read them and got in.

“It was his ball retention which was a focal point. It allowed us to build off him, when the ball went forward it stuck and stayed there.

“When we played at Ipswich, we never had any ball retention and couldn’t give our back four a breather.

“The other night, the ball stayed in their half, so suddenly you can get a nice shape and push your back for up.”

Promotion-chasing Middlesbrough will be backed by 4,500 fans tomorrow and Gray is under no illusions at the size of the task facing his side as they look to emulate their 3-2 success at The Riverside last August.

Gray said: “Middlesbrough have good players; we know it’s going to be a difficult game, but one we are looking forward to.

“At the Riverside, everybody turned up. We put a shift in, closed them down, nullified them from playing, and we have to do that again on Saturday.

“They are in good form, but we want to build on the result the other night at Millwall. We now want to start putting performances on at our place. Hopefully we can give the fans something to cheer about.”