The FA Cup offers Louis van Gaal an important chance of silverware this season, and so Manchester United vs. Sheffield United in the third round takes on particular importance.
Nigel Adkins will be hoping the Blades can repeat the cup run predecessor Nigel Clough's side enjoyed in last season's League Cup, in which they got to the semi-final. Eighth in League One, FA Cup success could be a valuable tonic, and, of course, the promise of a win over Manchester United is an intoxicating one.
Adkins said, per Paul Wilson of the Guardian:
We are going to the Theatre of Dreams, so why can’t we dream? If you can’t enjoy a challenge like Manchester United what can you look forward to? I must admit I gulped at first when the draw was made, but then I thought no, it’s a great draw. The players will enjoy it, the supporters deserve it, the club will benefit financially. I wouldn’t dare make changes.
All the players want to play for a start, and I wouldn’t like to short-change the fans because Old Trafford tickets aren’t cheap. We are taking around 8,500 and we are all going to enjoy it because there’s no pressure for a change.
That huge block of travelling supporters will no doubt make for a raucous Old Trafford, and if their team can give them something to shout about, it could be a memorable evening.
Date: Saturday, January 9, 2015
Time: 5.30 p.m. GMT/12.30 p.m. ET
Venue: Old Trafford, Manchester, England
TV Info: BT Sport 2 (UK Only)/Fox Sports 2 (U.S. only)
Manchester United: LLLLDW
Sheffield United: DWWWWL
Adam Marshall of Manchester United's website provided coverage of Van Gaal's interview with MUTV in which he revealed the Red Devils will be without Phil Jones on Saturday. The defender picked up yet another injury in his side's last game, against Swansea City on Jan. 2.
Jesse Lingard is back in contention, and Marshall wrote that "Ashley Young is in training after also being hurt against the Welsh side."
Van Gaal is clearly wary about the fitness of his squad, saying:
Of course, we have the long-term injuries, [Luke] Shaw, [Antonio] Valencia and [Marcos] Rojo. But Jones is also injured. Then we have to wait and see because I have a lot of players who are in the 'red zone' [in terms of fitness], overloaded, and that I decide later.
There is perhaps a hint there that he will field a fairly heavily rotated side.
As for Sheffield United, BBC Sport reported that forward Matt Done could return following a hamstring injury.
Assuming Van Gaal does rotate heavily, the above lineup seems a reasonable "guesstimation." There are plenty of other options, of course. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson could get a run out at left-back, allowing Matteo Darmian to swap flanks. Van Gaal might even give Paddy McNair a rare start.
Further forward, Anthony Martial is given a rest in the above XI. Having played such a lot of football, it might be sensible to save him for tougher tests to come, though the thought of Manchester United's attack without Martial is not one that heartens the spirit.
Juan Mata could play instead of Lingard or Memphis Depay, and in midfield, there would be no great surprise in seeing Marouane Fellaini or Bastian Schweinsteiger. Andreas Pereira, used in the Capital One Cup against Ipswich Town to such effect, may get a run-out.
There is even the chance Van Gaal will once again stray from the 4-2-3-1 formation that has been predominant this season and opt for the 3-4-1-2 that was in effect against Swansea City.
Cleon Hobson, Sheffield United fan and Football Manager blogger, provided the above predicted XI for the Blades, with the caveat that "Jose Baxter and Che Adams are likely to be in contention, too." If Done is not available for any reason, Hobson believes Conor Sammon is most likely to partner Billy Sharp. If that is the case, Adkins' side will line up in a more straightforward 4-4-2.
Players to Watch
If Lingard returns to action, it will be intriguing to see whether he can recapture some of the form he hit in November, when he provided a fine assist for Wayne Rooney against CSKA Moscow and scored a crucial goal against West Bromwich Albion.
Rooney himself will be an interesting watch. Thus far, his season has not sparked into form following its brief peaks, but his superb goal against Swansea should have boosted his confidence.
For Sheffield United, Hobson said: "Sharp and Done are the goalscoring threats." This is particularly evident from Sharp, who has 11 League One goals so far this season.
Hobson also suggested Adams could be a significant player, saying: "If Adams gets on the pitch, then he'll be up for the big game—especially if the game is a tight one. He's a powerful player who is still very raw and young but showed what he could do when he scored a brace against Tottenham Hotspur in January 2015.
"He is an impact player who could give Sheffield United a different dimension. He would look to stretch Manchester United and run in behind the defence. He is not scared to shoot or run with the ball at his opponents."
Although Sheffield United do have players who could have an impact in attack, the truth is Adkins' vulnerable defence will need to be at its best. The Blades are conceding an average of 1.4 goals per game in League One.
Given the pattern of play of so many games at Old Trafford this season, it seems reasonable to guess that defence will retrench to a deep, narrow position and attempt to stifle Manchester United. It can certainly be done, as the six goalless draws the Red Devils have endured at home this season have proved.
Another one here would bring even more embarrassment to Van Gaal, so the battle between the home side's relatively toothless attack and the away team's vulnerable defence will be key.
Manchester United: 1-3
Sheffield United: 12-1
Odds for the game correct at the time of writing, per Oddschecker.
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com.
All quotes gained firsthand unless otherwise noted.