A crunch match no one expected with plenty of European aspirations at stake takes place Wednesday at Old Trafford, where Manchester United host Sheffield United.
Both teams are in the top seven of the table, a place customary for fifth-place Manchester United (12-10-8) but still somewhat rarified air for promoted Sheffield United (11-11-8). Though the 13-time Premier League champions are currently two points better than the upstart Blades, the sides should for all intents and purposes be level on 46 points.
An egregious no-call on a goal that should have been awarded to Chris Wilder’s team to commence Project Restart on June 17 contributed to a 0-0 draw versus Aston Villa instead of a potential win. Still, the Blades are in the hunt for either European club tournament and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side occupy a provisional Champions League spot – if the Court of Arbitration for Sport upholds UEFA’s two-year ban on European play for Manchester City for financial irregularities.
Sheffield United’s 3-0 loss at Newcastle United on Sunday, though, threw cold water on any talk of karmic justice and those European dreams. It was one of the few matches the Blades looked completely out of sorts, coming undone after centre back John Egan was booked for a second time on 50 minutes.
Sheffield gave up all three goals after going down a man, but Wilder was in no mood for any excuses nor platitudes for an overachieving season to date.
“I’m sick of people talking of Champions League and what a great season we’re having,” Wilder seethed to The Times. “At the moment we have produced two bang-average performances.”
Egan will sit this match due to suspension, but the bigger issue facing Wilder is keeper Dean Henderson being ineligible out on loan from Manchester United. The only other game the 23-year-old has missed was the reverse fixture, which ended in a 3-3 draw as Oliver McBurnie scraped out a point for the Blades after they squandered a 2-0 halftime lead in front of Simon Moore.
Moore has not played since then, with his other two starts coming in the Carabao Cup. Wilder is also sweating the availability of veteran defender Phil Jagielka, which may determine his formation versus Manchester United’s potent attack.
“We’ll look at everything,” Wilder told The Star. “We’ll try and pick the best side. There’s all sorts of things I’ve got to look at. There’s a thought process. Do I go let them go again? Or do I change the shape and other things. I’ve been through them all in my head.”
Solskjaer has fewer worries than his counterpart as Manchester United began Project Restart with a 1-1 draw versus former manager Jose Mourinho and Tottenham Hotspur on Friday. Paul Pogba, making his first appearance since Boxing Day having recovered from an ankle injury, drew a penalty Bruno Fernandes calmly converted nine minutes from time to salvage the draw.
It also extended United’s unbeaten run to 12 matches (8-4-0) in all competitions as they lead Wolverhampton on goal difference for fifth. Solskjaer was cagey about his potential first XI given Pogba’s quality effort off the bench, but he was also intrigued by his side playing in an empty Old Trafford due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We love walking out at Old Trafford,” he said at his Tuesday press conference. “It’s a different experience but we have the urge to get back and start winning games. Hopefully, we can put our best performance on. It’s a different way of playing and is a different mental challenge. It might be more relaxing for some but it’s very different.
Maybe, when you’re at home and you’re struggling, you struggle with the home fans on your back. But we’ll miss out on the fans because I’ve never heard more supportive fans. It’s more difficult to play at Old Trafford without fans than with them.”
Brandon Williams, Mason Greenwood, and Marcus Rashford scored in a seven-minute span of the second half that canceled out goals by John Fleck and Lys Mousset on either side of halftime in the previous encounter.
Manchester United have won seven on the bounce at the “Theatre of Dreams” in all competitions over Sheffield United since a 2-1 loss in the First Division in 1973. Wayne Rooney provided the margin with a 90th-minute penalty in the most recent matchup there in the third round of the 2016 FA Cup.