MATCHES do not get much tougher than this afternoon’s game at Sheffield United, but it is just the curtain-raiser to Wanderers’ arduous February, a month that could be make-or-break for their Championship survival bid.

The Blades may have taken just one point from their last two outings but Chris Wilder’s side are sitting pretty in third place in the table, three points behind Norwich, with leaders Leeds a further three points clear.

The South Yorkshire side barely broke sweat as they ran out 3-0 winners at the University of Bolton Stadium in August, but Phil Parkinson is looking back slightly further, to the clubs’ last meeting at Bramall Lane.

That day a certain Gary Madine scored the only goal of the game for Bolton. The ex-Wanderer is now in the Blades’ striking ranks alongside former foe Billy Sharp – who has 19 goals to his name this season – with David McGoldrick and Wilder’s deadline-day capture Scott Hogan, who has joined on loan from Aston Villa.

Facing that array of firepower, few will expect the Whites to return home with any reward.

Not that Parkinson feels they are going there simply to make up the numbers.

“We know Sheffield United’s system, they’ve had a lot of success with that system,” he told The Bolton News. “We know what they’re going to do and it’s up to us to play like we did last season and combat that but also give them problems like we did then.

“I have watched that game back and we did cause them some problems as well, we can’t go there to just sit back, we’ve got to go with the intent to give them problems because with a back three their wide centre-backs will bomb forward like full-backs and leave space so we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the quality to exploit that.

“I saw Gaz play last week against Norwich, he did well and it’s a good signing for them, obviously they’ve boosted their ranks with a couple of strikers, Gaz being one of those.

“Billy (Sharp) is in a rich vein of form, we’ve come up against him lots of times, we know that he reacts to things in the box and we’ve got to be ready for that.

“A tough month for us starts with a tough game at Sheffield, we went there last year and got a result so the question is can we reproduce that display, because we were excellent on the day? That’s what we’ve got to do.

“The game against them here was a tough game, we’d had a game on the Wednesday (against Birmingham City) and it was a real full-on game, a lot went against us on the day and they played very well while we struggled to get near them.

“But if you look at the games in recent years against Sheffield United they’ve always been competitive, that was the first one where we weren’t good enough on the day but there were circumstances behind that.”

After the match at Sheffield United, Wanderers will host Preston North End, with games at Birmingham and Leeds bookending the fixture at home to Norwich.

Little wonder, then, Parkinson was relieved to come out of January having fended off other clubs’ interest in Sammy Ameobi, Erhun Oztumer and the newly-emerging Luca Connell.

The teenager was on the radar of top-flight clubs despite having started just twice for Wanderers, and Parkinson was clearly happy their initial approaches were rebuffed and his young starlet can continue his progress at Bolton.

“There was interest in Sammy in the last few days of the window and we could have easily lost a key player but we didn’t,” revealed Parkinson.

“I’m pleased we kept Luca, there was interest in him, which you’d expect, because he’s a young kid who’s just come into the team and had a couple of good appearances.

“I don’t think he’s feeling any pressure at all, he’s enjoying being part of the first team at the moment, it’s refreshing to see one of the young players come in and make his mark and I’m pleased with him.”

Wanderers head for Bramall Lane today with Pawel Olkowski (ankle) and Mark Beevers (Achilles) the main injury doubts.