Preview: Sheffield United

How to put Sunday into words? It was just a beautiful day and 43,000 Sky Blues fans were there to witness it. For a while, it didn’t feel like any other game of football, and by the time that it did, we were a goal up and were then not only playing at Wembley, but were winning at Wembley.

While Oxford were clearly the better team, the difference between the two teams on the day was that it mattered more to us. Seven academy players played for us, two got on the scoresheet and one lifted the cup – it was very much a homegrown triumph. What we witnessed was a group of local lads coming together to win something for their city, that made the win especially sweet.

If ever you needed reminding though how fleeting moments of success in football are, look no further than to this upcoming midweek game against Sheffield United. While Mark Robins and the players are outwardly stating that they still feel survival can be achieved, we would have to break the club’s record league winning streak in order to do so and still have to hope that other results fall in our favour. This game is more about Sheffield United winning a game to potentially secure promotion than it is about winning a game to keep us in this division.

Possible Line-Up

Making things even more difficult for Mark Robins is the current injury situation. Kwame Thomas and Callum Reilly were both out injured for Sunday’s game and it’s unclear whether they’ll be back fit for this game. Jordan Willis limped off injured in the closing stages on Sunday and may not recover in time for this game. Then Robins has got to contend with the fatigue that comes with playing games in such quick succession – especially as so many put everything on the line for Sunday’s triumph.

There is a decision to be made in defence where Farrend Rawson and Nathan Clarke have both done well in the past few league games but Jordan Turnbull and Chris Stokes excelled in central defence against Oxford. With all four players presumably available for this game, Robins may be tempted to keep at least Jordan Turnbull in the side from Sunday given that he not only played so well, but is contracted for next season. Equally though, Sheffield United’s physical threat may see Robins plump for Rawson.

Last Time We Met

If you wanted another reminder of what a terrible season this has been, cast your minds back to December 2016 when we last played Sheffield United. Sky TV cameras were in attendance to capture a sparsely-attended game that was heavily disrupted in the second-half by a pitch invasion led by fans protesting SISU’s ownership of the club. The game looked like somehow playing out into an unlikely 1-1 draw, before Sheffield United won the game in the final minutes to make a depressing evening even worse from a Sky Blues perspective.

How Are They Doing?

As mentioned earlier in this post, Sheffield United are on the verge of a long-awaited promotion back to the Championship, with a win in this game possibly enough to seal it. Having spent the past five seasons with one of the division’s biggest budgets and best attendances, this has been an inevitable moment that has somehow been delayed by a combination of bad managerial appointments, rewarding average players with expensive salaries and bad luck. This season has been different thanks to the appointment of Chris Wilder, cutting the dead wood from the squad and dominating games to the extent that luck has rarely been a factor.

Wilder was ruthless in the summer in releasing and transfer-listing unwanted players, making a few smart additions to the squad and quickly establishing a winning formula. Much like Antonio Conte at Chelsea, some poor performances in the early part of the season led to a change to a three-man defensive system which has turned the team into an irresistible force.

The goals of Billy Sharp have been a huge factor in Sheffield United’s bid for the League One title this season. He has 26 to his name this campaign, with the next highest-scoring striker in the squad being Caolan Lavery with four goals. However, goals have come from all areas of the team with wing-back Kieron Freeman on an impressive 10 goals for the campaign and centre-back Ethan Ebanks-Landell on five.

Possible Line-Up

Another key player for the Blades has been Mark Duffy, who leads the team with nine assists this season. Duffy played a major role in Burton’s promotion from this level last season as a winger, but has played just behind a front two for Sheffield United for much of the campaign. John Fleck and Paul Coutts in midfield both offer creativity from a deeper-lying position, while the wing-backs Kieron Freeman and Danny Lafferty provide valuable width.

At the back, the signing of Simon Moore in goal has proved to be a pivotal moment of Sheffield United’s campaign. Academy graduate George Long had looked set to be the number one goalkeeper this season after a promising previous campaign, however, some sloppy errors in the opening few games saw Chris Wilder act decisively in bringing Moore in from Cardiff before the end of the summer transfer window and Wilder has never been offered pause for thought on that decision following some solid goalkeeping displays from Simon Moore.

Prediction

It’s a shame that we’ve got to play such a difficult away game just days after the club’s greatest triumph in a generation. It would be easy to take the foot off the gas for this game as we’re not expected to win and the players could easily point to fatigue as an excuse. However, Mark Robins is clearly someone who’s not going to accept taking such a mentality, and he may see this game as an opportunity to assess which players he can trust for next season.

Taking a rational look at how these two teams compare against each other, Sheffield United are clear favourites for this game and should be able to win with ease. I think this will be a 2-0 loss.

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Half-Way Review: The Other 23 – The Promotion Challengers

Top Scorer: Billy Sharp (16) Most Assists: John Fleck & Mark Duffy (6)

Top Scorer: Billy Sharp (16)
Most Assists: John Fleck & Mark Duffy (6)

Sheffield United (1st Place)

Anyone with even a passing interest in League One knows the drill, Sheffield United start the season as promotion favourites and spend the next 46 games finding new ways to fall short despite having the biggest budget and crowds in the division. After a poor first few games, it looked like Chris Wilder’s Blades were going to be like Nigel Adkins’, Nigel Clough’s and Danny Wilson’s Blades in failing to discover that gritty, winning mentality that was once the club’s hallmark. However, three crucial changes to the side towards the end of August now sees this Sheffield United side looking ready to deliver on their perennial promise of a return to the Championship.

The signings of goalkeeper Simon Moore, centre-back Ethan Ebanks-Landell and a switch to a 3-4-1-2 formation have seen Sheffield United not just shoot up the league but absolutely dominate their opponents in almost every game they’ve played since the start of September. If there has been one criticism of the Blades this season, it’s that they’ve perhaps been overly reliant on Billy Sharp’s form in front of goal, with summer signings Leon Clarke and Caolan Lavery struggling to find form. Nonetheless, they are top of the division and are in a position to further strengthen their squads. The title favourites by some distance.

Top Scorer: Zach Clough (8) Most Assists: Jay Spearing (3)

Top Scorer: Zach Clough (8)
Most Assists: Jay Spearing (3)

Bolton Wanderers (2nd Place)

The appointment of Phil Parkinson as manager in the summer has proven to be just what Bolton needed to avoid a difficult first season in the third-tier. Not famed for playing a particularly progressive style of football, Phil Parkinson’s no-nonsense football has seen Bolton overpower many opponents with brute force from what is a squad mostly made up of experienced and proven Championship-level performers, with Zach Clough and the now-departed Sammy Ameobi providing a small dashing of flair in the final third.

Although Bolton currently occupy a top-two position and have probably the division’s strongest squad, they haven’t been entirely convincing and have produced some pretty poor showings on occasion this season. It feels like Bolton under Parkinson will rely upon taking fewer risks than anyone else and hope that no-one below them find form to secure promotion. In this division this season, it could well be enough.

Top Scorer: Josh Morris (15) Most Assists: Josh Morris (10)

Top Scorer: Josh Morris (15)
Most Assists: Josh Morris (10)

Scunthorpe United (3rd Place)

Having finished last season in excellent form, it wasn’t a massive surprise that Scunthorpe United were this season’s pace-setters. However, the main surprise with Scunthorpe this season is that they’ve much of their success has not been based around the goalscoring exploits of Paddy Madden, who’s played a relatively cameo role in the Iron’s impressive first half of the campaign. Instead, manager Graham Alexander has gotten the best out of forwards Tom Hopper and Kevin van Veen, who were already on the books, while his summer additions of Duane Holmes and particularly Josh Morris have added another dimension to what was already a strong squad.

Scunthorpe have a strong spine in central midfield and defence and have based much of their success this season on working hard and capitalising on mistakes or Josh Morris producing a moment of magic. However, they’ve won just once in their past six games and it’s looking like Graham Alexander is going to have to change things up a little to set them back on their way. The next month is going to be crucial for the Iron in restoring that lost momentum.

Preview: Sheffield United

We’re properly crap at the moment. We lost 3-1 to Southend at the weekend and it wasn’t even suprising. We’re heading into a game against one of the most in-form sides in the division, who also happen to be Sheffield United, it’s also going to be on a Thursday night for some reason, so no-one’s going to be there and we have a manager who doesn’t want to be there either.

The attempt to appoint Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink this week has signalled that we are actively looking for a new manager, which is something. How much we should be concerned that the talks ultimately fell through is probably something we’ll only really know when we finally know the identity of our next manager and how long it takes to get to that point.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

This upcoming game against Sheffield United feels more like an obligation than it is an opportunity to give our season a shot in the arm. With the focus having shifted from Mark Venus salvaging his managerial hopes to ensnaring the next chump, the excuse for the players mentally not turning up for this game is already there. Something crazy would have to happen for Sheffield United not to win this game.

As for what team we’ll play, that continues to be anyone’s guess. If James Sterry is unavailable at right-back, Dion Kelly-Evans will continue in the side and will inevitably be targeted by a physical and experienced Sheffield United side. Dan Agyei’s consolation goal against Southend will probably see him continue in the side with Marvin Sordell out wide. Jodi Jones’ assist for Agyei’s goal seems like it will be enough for him to start this game. Lee Burge’s injury on Saturday could well see Reice Charles-Cook return in goal.

Last Time We Met

Following a sloppy away performance at Doncaster towards the end of last season, we headed into our previous meeting with Sheffield United knowing that the unlikely prospect of salvaging a play-off spot was past us. Against a Sheffield United side still harbouring their own faint play-off hopes we played an experimental 3-4-3 system featuring a front three of Fortuné, Lameiras and George Thomas with Stephen Hunt at wing-back, which somehow saw us fly out of the blocks to take an early 2-0 lead. A cumbersome Blades side laboured to get a goal back in the second-half, only for a swift counter-attacking move involving Jodi Jones and Aaron Phillips, finished by Ruben Lameiras, see us take a decisive 3-1 lead in the final minutes.

How Are They Doing?

As always seems to be the case at Bramall Lane, a disappointing season at this level saw a summer change in manager and most of the squad with the promise that this would be the year that they sorted it all out. Unlike the past five seasons though, this iteration of Sheffield United actually looks they’ve sorted it all out.

After a difficult start to the season, former Northampton manager and ex-Blades player Chris Wilder has turned Sheffield United into a ruthlessly efficient team-unit. It hasn’t been that they’ve just lost one of their past 17 games and scored 37 goals in the process, it’s that they’ve absolutely dominated almost every game they’ve played during that period.

The early season jitters Sheffield United suffered came from a series of sloppy defensive errors which saw Chris Wilder act decisively in jettisoning left-back Chris Hussey and keeper George Long for the squad, bringing in the towering centre-back Ethan Ebanks-Landell from Wolves and keeper Simon Moore from Cardiff City and switching to a 3-4-1-2 formation. Not only have the changes seem to have eradicated the defensive weaknesses but they have made the Blades a more effective, dominant and attacking team overall.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Kieron Freeman and Danny Lafferty in the two wing-back positions have supplied energy, width and excellent delivery from wide areas. John Fleck and Paul Coutts have offered composure and penetration on the ball from the centre of the park to allow Mark Duffy, who has played almost his entire career as a winger, to flourish as a roving, in-your-face number 10.

Up front, Sheffield United have an array of options but have generally stuck with the energy of Matt Done alongside the pure finishing instincts of Billy Sharp. However, with Leon Clarke’s physicality and link-up play and the pace of Caolan Lavery to bring on from the bench, Chris Wilder has several ways in which he can change the game up should Plan A somehow fail to work.

Prediction

I cannot envision which circumstances would lead to victory for us in this fixture. Sheffield United are by far a better team than us in every area of the pitch and they are in excellent form. This game has a 4-0 loss written all over it.

Preview: Sheffield United

The remote chance that we had of making the play-offs was surrendered with a meek performance at Doncaster. A predictably soft goal given from a set-piece with a second almost as soft goal following not too soon after and no response for the final 60 minutes and that was it for the season. It only served to confirm that we weren’t going to pull a rabbit out of the hat in these final few games but it’s disappointing nonetheless that we couldn’t keep the illusion alive ahead of a long summer.

As bad as we’ve been over the second half of the season, we’re guaranteed our highest league position in a decade and four points from these final two games would be our highest points tally since relegation from the Premier League. I wouldn’t regard this season as one of progress considering we’ve gotten worse as it’s progressed but it just goes to show that the mediocrity we’ve descended into is an improvement on the ineptitude of the years before.

Not that these kind of records really matter when there’s nothing tangible to achieve and there is a temptation now to just play the youngsters. There are legitimate reasons to do so, Steven Pressley did so when he first arrived and saw enough from Callum Wilson – who would probably have been released otherwise – to earn him a starting spot for the following campaign where he exploded on the scene. It doesn’t always work, but I don’t think it’s the type of opposition that has an impact on the performance you get from an untried youngster, it’s the youngster themselves. If you don’t play them, you’ll only find out when you’re forced to play them when things really matter.

Possible Line-Up

The most open spot in the team for experimentation is at left-back where Sam Ricketts is now out for the remainder of the season but we don’t really have a natural left-back waiting to step up. Ryan Haynes hasn’t been recalled and is injured, Jordan Willis could slot in but is still recovering from injury, the same could be said for Chris Stokes. Devon Kelly-Evans played some games as a left wing-back in pre-season the year before last but has matured into more of an attacking player, his twin brother Dion is more naturally right-sided and both appear to lack the frame to be thrown into first-team action out of position. Cian Harries might be able to do a job but seemingly is seen as a centre-back. The only genuine alternative to Stephen Hunt is the right-footed Martin Lorentzson, which is slightly more preferable for me. but sounds like it isn’t going to happen

Last Time We Met

It was a memorable game, in a negative sense as it transpired, when we last faced Sheffield United. The game, front of the Sky cameras, came not too soon after we’d gone top of the league and with Sheffield United in indifferent form, it looked like we were set to continue a good run of results against our frequent tormentors.

A first-half performance where we eased into the game was livened up by Ruben Lameiras creating danger on the right wing. Lameiras’ level of skill befuddled a cumbersome Sheffield United side, eventually leading to some crude challenges from Dean Hammond and Jay McEveley, both of whom should have been sent off for a series of fouls on Lameiras. When Jacob Murphy’s cross was deflected over the line and not awarded as a goal, it looked like it just wasn’t going to be our day. A late Billy Sharp goal, from a set-piece unsurprisingly, and a red card to Sam Ricketts only served to further emphasise the point.

How Are They Doing?

It hasn’t been a vintage year at Sheffield United by any stretch of the imagination. In replacing Nigel Clough with Nigel Adkins in the summer after a frustratingly inconsistent campaign which nonetheless finished with a play-off semi-final, Sheffield United thought they finally had the man to secure a long overdue return to the Championship. Only for this season to prove to be one of the worst of their current five-year stint in League One.

Although the Blades retain hope of making the play-offs, they have been obdurate and uninspiring for much of the campaign. In fairness to Nigel Adkins, he was left a bloated and unbalanced squad by his predecessor with little freedom to re-jig the team to his liking. Although the signings Adkins has made have been experienced campaigners who have done little to add dynamism to a squad desperately in need of it.

One of the few bright spots of the season in terms of players has been Che Adams, a former youth-team player with the Sky Blues. Operating either out wide or as a striker, Adams is the kind of raw, pacey attacker that can get bums off seats. The more experienced Matt Done is Sheffield United’s other main source of dynamism, but for his work-rate rather than his pace.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

The rest of this Sheffield United side is packed full of experienced, robust campaigners who, as we saw in our last meeting, will look to impose themselves on the game physically. The main aggressors of that game at Bramall Lane, Jay McEveley and Dean Hammond, remain key although have been much maligned this season by Sheffield United fans for their lack of mobility. With Chris Basham (by name and by nature) in midfield too, there is going to be a tough, physical block for us to navigate around.

Finally, there’s Billy Sharp up front, Sheffield United’s top-scorer on 20 for the season. Now in his third spell at Bramall Lane, this has been by far his most successful one at his boyhood club. Synonymous with goalscoring in the Football League, Sharp endured a patchy start to the season but has generally been a reliable presence in front of goal when chances have fallen his way.

Prediction

Not really based on anything rational at all, I’m leaning towards us getting the win here. Sheffield United haven’t been great this season but find themselves in a position of having to win this game to maintain a faint hope of the play-offs, there is no pressure at all on us to do anything here. That lack of pressure can manifest itself either way but I’ve just got a feeling that we’ll get the win here, for all that it matters.

3-1 win for the Sky Blues, why not?

Preview: Oldham Athletic

Sunday confirmed my deep-seated anxiety about travelling to Bramall Lane with anything resembling confidence in a win. The football gods (a.k.a. the referee) were against us that afternoon with a dour Sheffield United side triumphing via evading two red cards, two penalty appeals and the ball going over their own line, scoring the winner from one of their few shots on target.

Having calmed down from the tumult of last Sunday, there’s a strain inside me that wonders whether we might actually have deserved what we got. As poor as Sheffield United were, they registered more shots on target than we did. There was something either lethargic or complacent about our performance, with little urgency on show, aside from a spell early in the second-half.

The message that Tony Mowbray should be getting across to his players this week has to be to produce these intense spells for longer in games and take absolute advantage of them, such as we did against Gillingham. We remain in a strong position in the division and with some eminently winnable games coming up over the festive period; there is a massive opportunity here to re-assert ourselves in the title race.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

For this upcoming game against Oldham, there are a plethora of attacking options, boosted by James Maddison completing 90 minutes for the under-21s and George Thomas returning from his loan spell with Yeovil. The three who lined up behind Armstrong against Sheffield United though have a credible case for starting again. Ruben Lameiras in particular, who was a surprise starter over Ryan Kent, stood out and appears to be another example of a player improving under the tutelage of Tony Mowbray.

Sam Ricketts’ red card on Sunday though leaves us light in numbers at the back. Ricketts hasn’t been in the best form of late but it will be the first time that we play without him this season and regardless of his form, he is a key leadership presence in this team. It will be interesting to see what the effect his absence from the team will have. With Martin Lorentzson some distance from match fitness, Aaron Phillips makes a timely return from a hamstring strain and has an opportunity here to prove his various doubters wrong.

Last Time We Met

This game will provide something of a progress report on Tony Mowbray’s leadership of the club considering the nature of our last meeting against Oldham. Back in April, Tony Mowbray’s side were unable to capitalise for all three points despite a strong showing against a side with nothing to play for.

The Sky Blues knocked the ball around confidently for much of the 90 minutes and with the intent of creating chances. A lack of concentration from a set-piece allowed Oldham to score a goal from one of their few attacks that night. After much huffing and puffing, Reda Johnson headed in a late winner to salvage something from the evening when really all three points should have been easily got.

How Are They Doing?

As often proves the case with sides that coast towards the end of the season, Oldham have struggled this time out. That sense of inertia has been made worse by financial difficulties which have led to players being paid late over recent months and a misguided managerial appointment made over the summer.

Darren Kelly had led the club at the start of the season after a lengthy recruitment process but lost the confidence of the fans from very early on in his reign. Kelly was sacked in September, and has since been hired and fired by Halifax in the Conference, replaced by David Dunn, who arrived at the club as a player/coach in the summer.

Dunn’s leadership has been characterised by two things, draws and loans. He has drawn 7 of the games he has been in charge of and the squad now features 7 loan players of differing quality. He has already made it clear that he is unsatisfied with the quality he has at his disposal but with the club in a perilous position both financially and in the division, there appears little wiggle room aside from making changes for change’s sake.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

There is some quality in this Oldham squad though and they do have a strangely decent away record, losing just once on the road all season. Liam Kelly in the centre of the park is one to watch out for; his passing range clearly belongs to a much higher quality of football than this Oldham side are producing. Carl Winchester and Mike Jones are both mobile and industrious midfielders capable of either playing out wide or centrally.

Ex-Sky Blue Danny Philliskirk currently leads Oldham’s scoring charts this season with a respectable six goals. The attack also boasts Michael Higdon and Dominic Poleon on five goals apiece. All three though are inconsistent performers but will all be competent to take advantage of the kind of opportunities we have been giving away to teams of late.

Prediction

Oldham’s weirdly strong away form makes this a potentially tougher fixture than we might otherwise be anticipating. Much like in our last meeting, Oldham will be fairly content to play the underdogs role which puts the onus on us to not only control proceedings but put the Latics to the sword. As we have seen in recent games, we have been on top without looking all too troubled only for the opposition to seize on the rare opportunities that we allow them when our concentration drops. It’s time to wipe the lethargy out of our recent performances and get back into top gear.

I’m fairly confident that we will be able to do that and as such, I am predicting a 3-1 Coventry City victory.

Preview: Sheffield United

Thanks to our premature cup exit at the hands of Northampton Town, we have been ‘punished’ with a 15-day break. Given the slightly lethargic display against Doncaster when last we saw our Sky Blues, it would seem that this early winter interlude might actually have been most timely. For us fans though, we had to resort to such extreme measures as spending time with our families to keep us entertained during this bleak period for us all.

We can abandon such nonsense now as the Sky Blues return to league action away to Sheffield United, which our Sky TV overlords have conveniently placed on a Sunday lunchtime. Tony Mowbray has had ample time to prepare for this game and his squad has been bolstered by the returns of James Maddison and Joe Cole to fitness, alongside the new signing of Swedish right-back Martin Lorentzson.

In the attacking midfield positions especially, the mouth waters at the quality and quantity of our current options. There has been a slight backlash against Joe Cole after he has been left out of recent squads for fitness issues but if he is close to his full fitness now, that hype around his arrival could prove to be justified. Given that Tony Mowbray has focused several of his press briefings around Joe Cole’s return to fitness, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him start in this game.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

But what of the trifecta of Ryan Kent, Jim O’Brien & Jacob Murphy that has performed so well of late? Well, perhaps we saw against Doncaster how it might not always be the best option to play Murphy through the middle. Donny packed the centre of the park and denied Murphy the space to thrive in. Now that we have two high-calibre central attacking midfielders in the team, Murphy’s explosiveness may best be deployed on the wings where he can be sprung through with a pinpoint pass.

If I am right in assuming Joe Cole is set to start, it will be interesting to see which of Ryan Kent and Jim O’Brien will be dropped to make way. Given that it’s an away game up north in December, my money’s on Jim O’Brien starting over Ryan Kent. Which would leave Tony Mowbray the option of bringing either or both of James Maddison and Ryan Kent on the bench, heady days indeed.

There’s no real need to change things at the back really. This is an important game for Reice Charles-Cook to demonstrate that he has simultaneously learned his lessons from the Doncaster game while also retaining his characteristic confidence that makes him a potential star in the making.

Last Time We Met

As much as we always tend to view Sheffield United as one of the toughest fixtures it’s possible to have. If memories of that FA Cup replay under Strachan have passed, then those of Richard Cresswell scoring in every bloody game against us haven’t quite and even that’s been a fairly long time ago now. We do though have a fairly good recent record against the Blades, somehow avoiding defeat to them in both of our league encounters last season.

In the penultimate game at Sixfields, Jim O’Brien’s scuffed effort deflected in past the unwitting Bob Harris to secure victory in a scrappy game where the Sky Blues defended pretty admirably. Our most recent meeting became Steven Pressley’s last game in charge of the club as he saw his charges take a two-goal lead against a Sheffield United team reduced to ten men early on. The Blades mustered two quick-fire goals late-ish in the second half which epitomised just how mentally brittle we were as a team at that time and was enough to require a swift change in management at the club.

How Are They Doing?

Sheffield United may have made the play-offs last season but they underperformed by their own standards and the money that was invested in the team. That, combined with the often dull football doled out by Nigel Clough was enough to see the now-Burton boss relieved of his duties in the summer. In came Nigel Adkins, a man who had won promotion three times in the past from this division, and it seemed like this time round, the Blades were adequately equipped to secure a long overdue return to the Championship.

Despite getting hammered by Gillingham on the opening day, it was actually a fair good start for Sheffield United who have been in the promotion frame for much of the season. More recently they have been on an abject run of form in the league, having not won since October 24th and fans growing increasingly frustrated and perplexed as to just why this time isn’t performing.

Part of the blame has to go down to the imbalanced squad Nigel Adkins had to work with following Nigel Clough’s departure. Despite at one point possessing around 30 first-team players, the side lacked a genuine goalscorer, a convincing presence in goal and a commanding central defender. With much of the squad on big long-term contracts too, Adkins was left with little room to manoeuvre in the summer to address some of those gaping holes.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Adkins went for experienced heads in his recruitment drive, bringing in the man mountain Conor Sammon to partner the proven Billy Sharp in attack and loaning in central midfielder Dean Hammond from Leicester, a man who helped Adkins take Southampton from this division to the top-flight. Despite Sharp leading Sheffield United’s scoring charts this season, none of those key three signings has convinced and it seems like in Sharp and Hammond’s cases at least, that their best days are appear to be in the past.

It would be foolhardy to write-off this Sheffield United team though as there are still plenty of high-standard performers who will be looking to prove that they are still up for the fight. The recent return from injury of right-back John Brayford, a £2 million signing last January, will be a massive shot in the arm given the defender’s undoubted class and desire. Winger/striker Matty Done is alongside Brayford, one of the few Sheffield United players the fans can see are working for the team at the moment.

Prediction

As bad as Sheffield United have been at late, I would still regard them as a dangerous prospect especially as a win now would stand them in good stead to get themselves back into promotion contention come the new year. Given their experience, there is the potential that they could really do a number on us, taking advantage of our tendency towards naivety.

It’s hard though not to feel very confident heading into this game, despite the prospect of Sheffield United finally flickering into life. It would be an indication of the progress of this side were we able to win this game against an ailing giant with a minimum of fuss. I’m backing us to do something like that, winning 3-2.

Preview: Sheffield United

Six games without a win, the drop zone looms over the Sky Blues despite midweek results going our way. This game against Sheffield United is one that many are expecting us to lose but a win here would give the team confidence after some better performances in recent weeks. The Blades though present a considerable obstacle and have won two league games whilst we’ve been twiddling our thumbs over the past 10 days.

It would help if Steven Pressley can finally show that he has settled on a starting line-up and style of play. Injuries haven’t helped but too often it has seemed like players are still learning how to play with each other, which consequently makes it hard for the team to play at the high intensity levels that Steven Pressley demands. We are a more entertaining team since the recent injection of pace but the time for experimentation is over, it’s either get this right or get relegated.

Adam Barton - Well, I like him and I have a brilliant record in picking out loathed players who eventually come good.

Adam Barton – I like him, and as the name of this blog shows, I have a brilliant record in picking out loathed players who eventually come good.

Although Frank Nouble and Reda Johnson are still out through injury, there are still selection decisions for Pressley to make. Adam Barton and John Fleck never really convince as a midfield partnership, offering little else than their tendency to slow play down in the middle of the park. Barton had a more impressive 90 minutes against Scunthorpe but Fleck came up with the assist for the goal and is also a player that Pressley has rarely dropped when he had the choice. Pressley might well stick with the duo given that Conor Thomas has been out of favour of late and Jack Finch was pencilled in to start on Thursday’s called-off under-21 game.

Sanmi Odelusi is close to full fitness but it seems like this game might come too soon. Luke Williams has looked like a good player in his first two appearances for the club without ever really making a big impact on the game. Blair Turgott is a work in progress but may get a chance off the bench after impressing in the under-21s last week. There is the potential for changes in the midfield but Pressley may be more inclined to stick with the combination that dominated possession against Scunthorpe.

The return of Andy Webster to full fitness could mean another shake-up in defence. Pennnington and Martin were okay against Scunthorpe but were far from convincing as a partnership and Pressley could justifiably re-call Webster on that basis. Webster also has the fact that he played so well in our last meeting against Sheffield United going for him, if he’s fit enough, expect the Scot to pick the Scot. Ryan Haynes could probably do with more time out of the team at and Jordan Willis has been adequate as an emergency left-back in recent weeks.

Possible Line Up: (4-4-2) Jones; Pennington, Martin, Webster, Willis; O’Brien, Fleck, Barton, Williams; Tudgay, Samuel.

Last Time We Met

Although most Sky Blues fans will always regard Sheffield United as being one of the most difficult teams to overcome, our recent record against the Blades has been pretty good. The most recent meeting came in August at Sixfields, Sheffield United dominated the opening 20 minutes of the game before a brilliant Ryan Allsop save kept out Michael Higdon and the momentum turned. We struggled to carve out too many clear cut opportunities, a forward line of fans’ favourite Marcus Tudgay and Josh McQuoid will do that for you. But we ran out victors after Jim O’Brien forced an own goal following an accurate Ryan Haynes cross to seal the win.

Our last trip to Bramall Lane was emblematic of our tail-off at the end of last season. Nathan Delfouneso gave us the lead after he pounced off a deflected pass from John Fleck. However that was the cue for the Blades to take over and they strolled to an eventual 2-1 victory with a lachrymose Coventry City unable to summon the effort to retaliate.

How Are They Doing?

With the distractions of their heroics in cup competitions now over, Sheffield United have now got down to the business of chasing promotion from the division. Prior to February 10th, Sheffield United had won just two league games from their past ten. Nigel Clough’s side have now won their past three games and are in ominous form.

John Brayford is back at Sheffield United having played a big role in their run to the FA Cup semi-final last season.

John Brayford is back at Sheffield United having played a big role in their run to the FA Cup semi-final last season.

Part of the reason that things have improved so markedly has been a spate of signings in January that bolstered a squad that had already looked to be brimming with talent. Most notably, Premier League quality full-back John Brayford has returned to Bramall Lane after surprisingly being deemed surplus to requirements at Cardiff. A fans’ favourite, Brayford should not be playing League One football and his signing demonstrate the resources available at Bramall Lane.

Nigel Clough also added attacking midfielders Jason Holt, Matt Done and Paul Coutts alongside versatile full-back Kieron Freeman. Matt Done has settled straight into Sheffield United’s starting 11 and has scored four in his first three games for the club. It’s a far cry from where Done was last season where he was struggling for game time at League Two Rochdale and had to fill in at left-back.

Another man in form is Jamie Murphy who can play in any position across the frontline and has nearly doubled his season’s goal tally across his last four league appearances. Other attacking threats to watch out for are goal poacher Marc McNulty, wingers Ryan Flynn and Jamal Campbell-Ryce, the pacey Che Adams as well as the impish creative midfielder Stefan Scougall. That’s not forgetting the ludicrously gifted Louis Reed in central midfield, Sheffield United have an embarrassment of riches in this area of the pitch.

Sheffield United have struggled at times in defence where Nigel Clough’s infamous propensity to tinker with the side has arguably robbed them of defensive stability. More recently it has been the partnership of converted midfield brute Chris Basham and yet another gifted young talent in Terry Kennedy that have been given a run in the team together. With the defence looking sorted, there are few genuine areas of weakness in Sheffield United’s team barring the sense that they are still prone to getting caught out by organised defensive units when playing at Bramall Lane.

Possible Line-Up: (4-2-3-1) Turner; Brayford, Basham, Kennedy, Harris; Reed, Doyle; Coutts, Holt, Done; Murphy

Prediction

If we go into this game believing that we are beaten, we will lose. It’s important for the players to believe that they can get something out of this game because we may well need the points here in our battle against the drop. We need to start the game with a high level of intensity rather than trying to ease into it as we have so often done under Steven Pressley. Sheffield United have the players to punish us for playing the ball too slow and being sloppy in possession and if we don’t impose ourselves on the game from the very first minute, this could be a very heavy defeat.

I’m trying to be optimistic and part of me sees this as the game that proves that Pressley has found the right course for this team with fans’ favourite Marcus Tudgay in amongst the goals. Applying rational logic, can I see that actually happening? No. 2-1 win for Sheffield United.