James Shield's Sheffield United Column: Premier League survival or FA Cup success? The two might actually go hand in hand

After last weekend’s FA Cup tie at Bristol Rovers delivered Sheffield United’s first win of the season, the reward for which was being paired with Plymouth Argyle in the fourth round draw, one suspects Chris Wilder will soon be asked if he should prioritise Premier League survival over chasing silverware.
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Particularly, after building on their success in the south-west by beating Newcastle on Tuesday night, United’s players produce another positive result and performance when Tottenham Hotspur report for duty at Bramall Lane in 24 hours time. Victory over Steve Bruce’s men has breathed new life into their battle for survival which, until Billy Sharp’s second-half penalty capped a combative and creative display, was in danger of becoming a slide straight back into the Championship.

However I would argue the two - impressing in the league and the knockout competitions - are not mutually exclusive. Despite what many managers seem to think when they field severely weakened teams in the latter, under the guise of getting minutes under the belts of those on the periphery of their starting elevens or giving youngsters a much-needed chance. Only those with the deepest squads or most talented academies at their disposal can do that and, when insisting they are taking the tournament seriously, keep a straight face. The damage caused to Leeds’ campaign by their shock exit to Crawley Town, for example, is far greater than the risk of overburdening the likes of Patrick Bamford, Luke Ayling and Illan Meslier, who were all excused from duty at The People’s Pension Stadium - otherwise known as Broadfield.

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Despite not being averse to making changes in the cup himself, Wilder recognised as much when selecting a strong side for the trip to Rovers. Had United lost that fixture, or even progressed via penalties, the pressure on their shoulders following a run of 15 defeats and two draws in the PL would have become absolutely intolerable. Instead, the sense of relief when they triumphed was almost palpable. The size of the weight lifted from them was apparent in their next outing, with Newcastle second best even before Ryan Fraser was sent-off after committing his second bookable offence.

“That wasn’t a ‘backs to the wall’ showing,” Wilder said. “That was all about identity, and showing what we are about, which was important for ourselves and the fans.”

Reflecting upon that match, and looking forward to the duel with Spurs, he also acknowledged United still have a mountain to climb in order to avoid the drop. They will enter the meeting with Mourinho’s men nine from safety and clearly, given the wealth, profile and opportunities it brings, retaining elite level status is still clearly Wilder’s number one priority.

But there is no reason to believe why United can’t prolong both their bid to retain top-flight status and stay in the FA Cup. Indeed, given the recuperative effect that triumph over Rovers clearly had on the morale of a group which appeared to have forgotten how to win, the closer they get to Wembley the more likely it is they might well stay up.

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