CHRIS WILDER was credited for taking a big gamble against Reading and emerging as the jackpot winner. Expect no spin of the dice at promotion rivals West Brom.
With all due respect to the relegation-haunted Royals, if you are going to rest Billy Sharp, the Championship’s second top scorer (22) who has just extended his contract until 2021, and regular strike partner David McGoldrick in favour of trialling a newly acquired strike force, it was the perfect time to do it.
West Brom, however, are a very different beast, especially in front of their own fans. A number of whom, incidentally, caused tempers to boil after setting fire to toilets following their recent win at Aston Villa. Viewed by the incensed home club as adding insult to injury. Sometimes s*** happens.
It's that time of the season. Almost every match Sheffield United plays seems like the biggest test so far. Unless automatic promotion or a play-off place hinges on 90 minutes, none are likely to come much bigger than the two upcoming fixtures at The Hawthorns and Hilllsborough.
The Blades have an opportunity to make real progress. Form team West Brom, who surpassed United in midweek as the Championship’s top scorers after a 3-2 win at QPR, are formidable. A win there would be spectacular; avoid defeat, however, and it's still job done.
Wilder knows all too well the size of the task. “Of all the teams who came down from the Premier League they for me are the best equipped to go straight back up,” he said.
“They’ve kept pretty much everyone and what shows their ambition, the power of the club, is that they effectively made one change to the squad. And Dwight Gayle for Salomon Rondon isn’t bad is it?
In the 4-0 home win over troubled Reading, January loan signings Gary Madine and Scott Hogan were preferred with Kieron Freeman replacing George Baldock who had a calf injury.
In what was a perfect outcome for Wilder’s bold choice, Madine scored twice and received a standing ovation. Something of a landmark moment given the history between Blades fans and the former Sheffield Wednesday striker. They were the 28-year-old from Cardiff’s first goals in more than a year. Freeman set the ball rolling, giving United a first-minute lead and John Fleck added the fourth.
But it is inconceivable Sharp will not be start in the West Midlands. McGoldrick, too, although Madine has laid down a claim. Defender Chris Basham, who was serving out a two-match suspension for the visit of Reading, is also set to return.
The midweek victory for the Baggies lifted them into fourth place, a point behind United in second on goal difference from Leeds. A position Darren Moore’s team have gained largely due to a spectacular away record. Over their last ten Championship trips West Brom have won eight of them. At home, however, it is a different picture. Only two wins over the same period, so an opportunity very much exists for the in-form Blades who arrive undefeated in five home or away.
As far as domestic matters are concerned on paper it’s no contest. But as much as we would like to think otherwise, Sheffield derbies are notoriously unpredictable and should United succumb at The Hawthornes, the latest local contest falls at an inconvenient time.
The footballing imbalance between the city’s two clubs is there for all to see. United are in a much better place. A yawning gap in the league table illustrates that. Better equipped, better organised, high team morale and led by one of the best manager’s in the country.
But that was very much the case as well in the last two meetings. Disappointing goalless draws at Bramall, the first of which Wednesday, with ink barely dry on new manager’s Jos Luhukay’s contract, arrived in total disarray and were then reduced to ten men. Yet on both occasions United could not convert obvious superiority and home advantage into goals.
Ex-Lane boss Steve Bruce, who has had a low key start since assuming command at Hillsborough at the beginning of the month, will be looking for a statement from his under performers.
After a hugely disappointing campaign the Owls have nothing else to play for but local pride and United will have to dig deep to bounce out of S6 as they did so gloriously on their last visit.
If the Blades should arrive in the dark side of the city on the back of three points from The Hawthorns, perhaps a defining moment in the campaign. If that is to be the case, where better to do it.
Wingback Enda Stevens has extended his contract until 2022 but other players such as Jack O’Connell will have to wait until the end of the season before any more new deals are offered.