Reading v Sheffield United - Blades eye FA Cup run to enrich Premier League adventure
FOR Sheffield United to be pootling towards mid-table obscurity in the last few months of the Premier League season would be an achievement in itself for a newly-promoted side, but individually and collectively there is plenty still to play for.
At Reading’s Madejski Stadium tonight, the Blades will be 90 minutes from the FA Cup quarter-finals – 120 and penalties if needed, but no replays in this midweek round of matches. Wembley is coming into view.
Manchester City retaining the League Cup means only goal difference is keeping Sheffield United out of the Europa League places. Three points from their game in hand at relegation-threatened Aston Villa puts them in the Champions League spots.
There are also individual battles, with manager Chris Wilder set to make a few changes – not many, he insists – from the tight group which put them in that position.
“We want excitement from all our supporters, they don’t want mid-table obscurity in any division,” says Wilder, in the stands for United’s FA Cup semi-finals in 2003 and 2014.
“We’ve got 11 league games left and we’ve got an opportunity of getting to the quarter-finals, so there should be excitement running through the football club.”
Pragmatism will unfortunately play its part. Left wing-back Enda Stevens injured his calf against Brighton and Hove Albion and is “touch and go” tonight. We can perhaps read something into his likely replacement, Ben Osborn, being wheeled out for media duties.
“He’ll be fit for Saturday (when Norwich City are visitors in the Premier League) if he misses Tuesday, no risks, that’s been our policy right the way through,” insists Wilder. “If it’s worth taking a risk towards the back end of season we’ll consider it but not here and not now.
“But it’s about winning games of football. Everything else comes with winning but the be-all and end-all is proving yourself on the pitch in any game.
“I don’t know why we shouldn’t talk about being a potential finalist.
“A couple of lads I know played for Chesterfield when they were close to getting to a final (in 1997) as an old third-tier side. It can happen to us, but there have to be no mistakes.
“I’d be very surprised if the attitude isn’t absolutely bang on because that’s something we drill into them all the time.”
Osborn, a summer signing from Nottingham Forest, could make only his fifth start for the club – all in the cups.
“If we win we’re one game away from Wembley and that excites all of us,” said the 25-year-old. “We’ve got a tough game but if we play well and we do what we know we can do, we give ourselves a good chance and we’re in a good position in the league to kick on. It’s a huge week for us and hopefully a chance we can take. I’m looking forward to it.”
Hitting the Premier League’s 40-point safety mark might be cue to reach for the slippers – Tony Pulis’s teams were notorious for tailing off once they did – but five January signings have ramped up competition.
“That was probably the goal at start of the season, let’s not kid ourselves, but now we’ve got it we’ve been looking up, looking at the chasing pack and the games we’ve got ahead,” says Osborn.
Loanees Panagiotis Retsos and Richairo Zivkovic will be involved tonight. They have yet to make Blades debuts but have already had a positive effect.
“Training’s getting more and more (intense) every day, the competition for places raises everyone’s game and now we’ve got the Cup run,” argues Osborn.
“Someone could get injured in the warm-up and you might be needed straight away so you have to do everything you can because when you get the chance, you’ve got to try and take it. You can’t let anyone down, especially now with the season we’re having.
“Initially, I found it quite tough mentally just to get my head around going from playing so many games week in, week out – you miss it, you crave it.
“If I was gaffer would I change it? Nah. The boys in my positions, Enda and Flecky (midfielder John Fleck), have been outstanding.
“I signed thinking I’d get a bit more game-time.
“I maybe underestimated the quality and consistency of the players here.”
Osborn’s former Forest team-mate Jack Robinson followed him to Bramall Lane in January.
“I told him ‘Get ready because training’s tough,’ and he said to me the other day, ‘You weren’t joking, were you?’ He was going home and he said he couldn’t move!” says a smiling Osborn.
The way teams finish one season has a habit of continuing into how they start the next.
“It gives you something to strive towards,” says Osborn. “This has been an unbelievable season so far and it’s got the opportunity to get even better.
“It’s going to make sure no one will take their foot off the gas and it’s something to keep the fans excited.”
Last six games: Reading DLWLLW; Sheffield United DLWWWD.
Referee: K Friend (Leicestershire).
Last time: Reading 0 Sheffield United 2, Championship, December 8, 2018.