Sitting two divisions and 44 places below them in the English football pyramid, Sheffield United are considered by many to be rank outsiders as they prepare to face Tottenham Hotspur in the first leg of their Capital One Cup final at White Hart Lane tonight.
They dispatched West Ham and Southampton to reach this stage, their second cup semi-final in two seasons after last year’s run to the last four of the FA Cup, and an eventual defeat to Hull City at Wembley. Aston Villa, Fulham, Nottingham Forest, Charlton and Queens Park Rangers have also been dumped out by Clough’s side. And tonight they look to add another scalp to that list.
But what are their chances? Here, The Star looks at five ways United could upset the odds once again ahead of next Wednesday’s second leg, at a packed Bramall Lane.
1) Physicality: Any League One side looking to upset a Premier League club will not do so by letting them play football, so expect United’s well-drilled defensive unit to harass Spurs’ multi-million-pound stars at every opportunity. Young Louis Reed, still just 17 years of age, may get the nod to start alongside captain Michael Doyle in a two-man holding midfield formation, after carrying out impressive man-marking jobs in previous games and demonstrating patience well beyond his formative years. This starts from the front, too; with Marc McNulty likely to plow a lone furrow upfront, the Scot will not give Tottenham’s defenders a moment of peace and this approach could prove key.
2) Discipline: Top-flight teams and players are exactly that for a reason; they are talented enough to hurt you without any warning. And Spurs’ star stable of Eriksen, Kane, Soldado etc have all proved they can pull things out of the bag when it matters, so United’s players - from one to eleven - must stick to their jobs manfully for the entire 90 minutes and not give Spurs a second. They performed this to perfection in the quarter-final against Southampton, who probably had one serious attempt in the game. Do so again against Spurs, and they have a chance of bringing something back to Bramall Lane.
3) Jamie Murphy: Of course, if United are to bring any advantage back to South Yorkshire then they will have to demonstrate some offensive quality, too, and Scottish winger Murphy is probably the most likely to provide it. After a slow start to the campaign, Murphy is beginning to show signs of the stunning form which helped United to the FA Cup semi-finals last year and, on his day, few defenders can live with his directness, pace and tricky feet. If, as expected, he lines up on the left, his duel with former Blades defender Kyle Walker could help define the tie.
4) Respect, and confidence:Manager Nigel Clough joked before his side travelled to QPR in the FA Cup, that some fans were beginning to expect his side to cause an upset. Make no mistake - beating Spurs in a two-legged semi-final to reach the League Cup final, as Jamie Murphy says in today’s Star, would be their biggest achievement in recent years. The draw was kind to them, in that it pitted them at home in the second leg (and avoided Chelsea). Yet United, as shown by their immense cup record since Clough took over, should show no fear. They are a resilient, disciplined defensive unit and have the players, like Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Louis Reed, who can provide the ammunition to their striker. It won’t be as easy as some fans are predicting - but they can travel to White Hart Lane in anticipation of a good game of cup football.
5) Chris Basham: Basham suffered a disappointing start to his Bramall Lane career since arriving from Blackpool, but has been a revelation since moving back to centre-half alongside Jay McEveley. Basham has missed United’s last three games after a red card on Boxing Day at Port Vale, but is expected to return against Spurs, at the expense of Terry Kennedy. Basham will undoubtedly have kept his fitness up throughout his absence, but will he be match-sharp against the likes of Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen? Mark Howard, too, will be a key player for United. A boyhood Spurs fan, the former Arsenal goalkeeper Howard has warned his beloved Tottenham that he will show no mercy tonight. United’s players will be up for this one, make no mistake - manager Nigel Clough and assistant Chris Morgan, in particular, will make sure of that.
What do you think will define tonight’s semi-final at White Hart Lane? Let us know in the comments below, or Tweet us: @TheStarSport