James Shield: Sheffield United know Man City can be beaten...and here's how
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But Sheffield United can beat Manchester City at Wembley this afternoon and reach the FA Cup final. Paul Heckingbottom knows it. And so does Pep Guardiola too. The Catalan’s second string would probably run away with the Championship over the course of an entire campaign. But this is a one off match. A two horse race. And football, as someone very famous once said, is a funny old game.
In order to spring what would be one of the greatest upsets in their recent history - perhaps even the greatest if you buy into the hyperbole which surrounds the Premier League at present - United first have to rely on City having a bad day at the office. Which is perfectly feasible.
Guardiola will make changes, with today’s contest being staged less than 72 hours after his side visited Bayern Munich in its battle to be crowned kings of Europe. So, despite the wealth and the depth of talent at City’s disposal, that means many of those who take to the pitch won’t be used to working performing alongside each other. It will take them 20 or so minutes, no matter how good they are, to discover their best rhythm.
Let’s be frank, United are probably going to have to score more than once in order to prevail. But if they can get a foothold in the fixture early on, possibly taking a shock lead and giving themselves something to cling on to, they can make this process of assimilation a little tougher for City.
One area where United might already have the edge is psychologically. I don’t care how good a gaffer Guardiola is or how hard a task master, most of those he is set to deploy against in this game will be utterly convinced they are going to win. And so they should be. There’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever. But there’s a big difference between ‘will’ and ‘can’, which is how those set to represent United are almost certainly going to view things. That subtle contrast means they could be a little more alert, and possess an edge their opponents lack.
This isn’t a ‘free hit’ for Heckingbottom and his charges. Those don’t exist in professional sport. There’s always something at stake, be it pride, a trophy or simply a victory. And that brings a certain pressure, plus a feeling of jeopardy.
United, second in the Championship table and seven points clear of third with four league matches remaining, have spent the entirety of the campaign competing under stress. If, as we’re constantly being told, that can inhibit performance levels then the same goes for City too. And the weight of expectancy they are going to carry on the shoulder here, is far greater than the one being borne by United. Which, yet again, gives them something to gnaw away at.
City are frighteningly good. But they’re also human. No robots immune to the same things which are generally accepted to be issues for mere mortals.
United, you can safely say, probably won’t see a great deal of the ball. City have registered a possession percentage of more than 65 in the top-flight so far this term. But that is no guarantee of a result. Otherwise they wouldn’t have lost four of their outings. When they dispatched United 1-0 in their very last meeting, they hit a figure of 75. But that didn’t translate into goals.
United didn’t make the most of the opportunities which came their way that day. Okay, so the same can probably be said for City, who triumphed thanks to an early Gabriel Jesus effort. But United were effectively one chance away from returning home with a point. And in Iliman Ndiaye they boast someone who is capable of producing the type of magic which should ensure, if things unfold in a similar fashion here, they make the most of the situation.
Having spent most of this column discussing United’s strengths, it’s only right to highlight their weaknesses. The loss of Tommy Doyle and James McAtee will be a blow, with competition rules preventing them from featuring against their employers. The duo, of course, are on loan from Manchester City.
Like Ndiaye, both McAtee and Doyle can create something out of nothing. The latter did exactly that during the quarter-final victory over Blackburn Rovers, firing home from long distance right at the last knockings to settle an utterly compelling tie. But where their absence will be felt most acutely is in terms of their athleticism their presence brings. United’s remaining midfielders are high on experience but, and I mean this with no disrespect whatsoever, now a little low on legs.
Still, given that tactical discipline and shape are likely to be vitally important against City, the knowledge of Oliver Norwood, John Fleck or whoever is chosen to anchor the engine room might actually be a benefit. Still, it’s fair to say that Heckingbottom would much rather be able to call upon Doyle and McAtee than not.
The odds on United coming through are long. Longer, it must be admitted, than the list of world class signings Guardiola’s employers have made since effectively being purchased by Abu Dhabi’s government a decade-and-a-half ago. But neither are they non-existent. There’s enough reasons to believe they can complete this supposedly impossible mission which isn’t actually impossible at all.