Sheffield United: Yes, Aston Villa will be better, but The Blades are stronger too
Despite failing to prove the catalyst for a surge into the play-off positions, the presence of Dean Smith and John Terry in the technical area combined with Tammy Abraham's in attack means Aston Villa will pose a much sterner test of Sheffield United's credentials tomorrow night than the dispirited, dishevelled bunch beaten at Bramall Lane five months ago.
But the evolution of his squad, following a transfer window which saw three new signings arrive in South Yorkshire, means Chris Wilder's side are also now a much more formidable proposition than the team which cruised to a 4-1 win when the two teams last met in Championship competition.
Then, despite overhauling his options during the close season, Wilder's bench was desperately short of firepower with Conor Washington still finding his feet at United after leaving Queens Park Rangers less than 24 hours earlier and Ben Woodburn struggling for both form and fitness following a loan move from Liverpool.
Now, even though Scott Hogan is ineligible for selection against his parent club, Wilder has a plethora of attacking options at their disposal with Gary Madine and Kieran Dowell joining the former Brentford centre-forward at United over the past five weeks. Washington, despite still searching for his first goal since waving goodbye to Loftus Road, travelled to the Midlands having found the back of the net during a Professional Development League fixture earlier this week.
With third-placed United knowing victory will lift them to the top of the table, being able to call upon players of Madine and Richard Stearman's experience could prove crucial during the remaining 16 matches of the campaign. Both men, who were introduced during the second-half of last weekend's game against Bolton Wanderers, have won promotion to the Premier League while the four other substitutes names by Wilder have all tasted life at the top end of the division.
"There are some serious choices to be made," he said. "Everyone is pushing and all of the lads, they can all step in quite easily."
Villa, who appointed Smith and Terry following Steve Bruce's departure in October, were 15th in the table when the former Brentford manager took charge. They enter this evening's televised encounter in ninth, having won seven and drawn seven of their 19 outings under Smith.
Despite winning only once since the turn of the year, three of those successes came against opponents with ambitions of reaching the top six, including Derby County and Middlesbrough.