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.
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.
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.
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.