ASTON VILLA’S arrival at Bramall Lane represents a moment of truth for Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder and the club’s co-owners.
If the Blades are to maintain a strong promotion challenge and own the territory instead of playing catch-up it starts with victory against their fifth-placed promotion rivals. Ahead is a trip to runaway leaders Wolves this weekend and a date with Leeds United at the Lane seven days later, all three clashes showing live on Sky.
By then it will have become clearer whether the decision to restrict Wilder’s transfer dealings in both windows to largely bargain buys from the lower leagues, relying solely on the manager’s renowned ability to coax the best out of them was a wise policy given the opportunity they have.
The Blades slipped to seventh in the Championship table whilst in FA Cup action against Preston North End at the weekend. A 1-0 victory earned them a trip to shock 2015-16 Premier League champions Leicester City and a likely reunion with former Blades defender and fan Harry Maguire. In-form Fulham, another club United are due to visit shortly, took advantage to leapfrog them into the final play-off spot.
Wilder, who has just agreed to let striker Caolan Lavery spend the remainder of the season on loan at Rotherham United, admitted: “If we want to be in the mix come the last half-a-dozen games then these next 12 games we’ve got to be good.”
Unbeaten in 2018 but with only two wins in the last 11 Championship fixtures, three points at the Lane will move United to within a point of Villa. Vital given what lies immediately in front of them. A point while not too detrimental would mean a missed opportunity to gain ground on a serious competitor. Depending on other results, defeat will almost certainly lead to slipping further back before heading to Molineux.
Striker Clayton Donaldson scored twice to secure a draw at Villa Park in December, where the Blades trailed 2-0 after only nine minutes. “They are powerhouse clubs, massive heavyweights in the division,” is Wilder’s view of the challenge facing his squad. “I’m not spinning or putting extra pressure on, but all three clubs are expected to go up out out of this division. They’re going to have to come [go] for wins, all three teams. Wins is the name of the game for those clubs.
“Our approach is that we’re all out to win games of football whether at home or away. Our approach won’t change. It’s brilliant to be involved from a staff point of view, a player point of view but more importantly from the supporters point of view.”
Wilder, who confirmed he expects to see midfield men Samir Carruthers and Nathan Thomas follow striker Lavery in making loan moves before the transfer window shuts on January 31, remains confident his players have the armoury to meet the task head-on.
“As much as we look at the other teams and look at the games and go ‘Villa wow’, the players that they’ve got, Wolverhampton Wanderers ‘wow’ look at the players they’ve got, the way their going. Leeds United, I think they’ve spent £4.5million on Adam Forshaw [a midfielder who moved from Middlesbrough earlier this month] and looking at spending this, that and the other and really should be play-off, stroke, looking at the top two.
“I’m looking at those teams saying we’ve got to play Sheffield United who have done alright this year. I think they’ll recognise that they’re going to have to play well to beat us just as much as we’re going to have to play well to beat them.”
Lavery, who shattered a cheek bone earlier this season, has struggled to establish himself in the side. The Canadian-born Northern Ireland international, 25, has scored five goals in 36 appearances for United since signing from Sheffield Wednesday in August 2016.
Of his move to the New York Stadium and the drop to League One, Lavery said: The injury I had at the start of this season was a pretty nasty one and quite a rare one to be fair. It was disappointing to miss such a large chunk of the season and I'm really looking forward to getting going now."
Villa and former Blades boss Steve Bruce will have gained little from watching last Saturday’s lifeless Cup win at the Lane settled by Billy Sharp’s penalty conversion, his ninth goal of the season. Bruce will have spotted the industrious threat of wing-back George Baldock and surely noted for further consideration the potential of 24-year-old defender Ben Heneghan, signed last summer from Motherwell, who made an impressive Blades debut in an otherwise dull encounter. But Bruce backed up the United boss’s pre-match assessment.
“We know they're a good team and have been there or thereabouts all season,” he said. “They'll be difficult to play on their patch, that's for sure. I was there watching them on Saturday and they're a good side. We're going to have to be at our best to get something from them.”
United skipper Sharp has fallen out of favour and remained on the bench for Championship matches since the turn of the year. Notably sitting out the goalless Steel City derby at the Lane during which new loan signing from Manchester United, James Wilson, was picked ahead of him to come on in the latter stages as United searched for a winner.
Wilson, 22, who is likely to join Sharp on the bench again as top scorer Leon Clarke and Clayton Donaldson are the current preferred partnership up front. Donaldson scored what turned out to be the winner at Norwich. Cup-tied recent signings Lee Evans, from Wolves, and Ryan Leonard are expected to resume in midfield after both impressing on their debuts in a 2-1 victory at Carrow Road.
Wilson could find himself facing Old Trafford teammate and England Under-21 defender Axel Tuanzebe. The exciting talent has just joined Villa on loan and is set to make his debut at some stage during the Lane clash.
“I’m delighted we've been able to get someone of that quality in,” said Bruce who has won all three matches as a visiting manager since resigning in May 1999 after just once season in charge at the Lane, his first managerial job.
“He's got all the ingredients of a modern day player – he's quick, strong and powerful. He can play anywhere in midfield and anywhere at the back. When you've got someone who can do all of those things so naturally, then it's a great thing.
“I believe he's got a really big future at Manchester United, I really do. It's not often a player of his ability becomes available.” Wilder, meanwhile, is relishing the prospect of establishing a play-off place.
“These are heavyweight games,”he said. “We’ve just slipped outside the play-offs but we’re full value for our position and we’re set to go well in the last 18 league games.
“The boys are playing with confidence, on a little bit of a run.” Adding: “We’re going full tilt into the games and I think they are going to be crackerjack games right the way through from now.”
FA Cup fifth round draw (ties to be played over weekend of February 17-18).
- Sheffield Wednesday vs Notts County or Swansea.
- West Brom vs Southampton
- Chelsea vs Hull
- Leicester vs Sheffield United
- Huddersfield or Birmingham vs Man Utd
- Millwall or Rochdale vs Newport or Spurs
- Brighton vs Coventry
- Wigan vs Man City