In Focus: Blades aiming to cut down Forest

Matthew Hill
LiveScore
14/05/202209:30
Sheffield United booked their Championship play-off spot with a 4-0 victory over champions Fulham on the final day
Sheffield United booked their Championship play-off spot with a 4-0 victory over champions Fulham on the final day

Two of English football’s most historic clubs do battle as Sheffield United entertain Nottingham Forest in the first leg of their Championship play-off semi-final.

Bramall Lane will play host to what is set to be a keenly-fought clash with the in-form Blades hoping to establish a commanding advantage.

Yet they are unlikely to have an easy time of it against a Forest side who only fell short of automatic promotion in their penultimate game of the campaign.

We look ahead to the fascinating tie, with this afternoon’s opening clash followed by the reverse meeting at the City Ground on Tuesday evening.

Blades sharpening up

Having been relegated from the top tier with a whimper last season, Sheffield United needed time to warm to the task of making an immediate return this term. 

A paltry five wins from their opening 18 Championship games saw newly-appointed boss Slavisa Jokanovic axed by mid-November and left hopes of automatic promotion in tatters.

However, Paul Heckingbottom’s appointment has proven inspired with the 44-year-old overseeing 15 wins from 27 league matches to surge into the top-six mix. 

Rather than reinventing the wheel, Heckingbottom has gone back to basics at Bramall Lane and made use of the tools at his disposal to grind out results in whatever fashion required.

In fact, the only team to accumulate more points since his arrival are their upcoming opponents and fellow promotion hopefuls Huddersfield.

Flourishing Forest

Steve Cooper has masterminded Nottingham Forest's fantastic rise up the Championship table
Steve Cooper has masterminded Nottingham Forest's fantastic rise up the Championship table

In terms of style, excitement and sheer entertainment value, few clubs in this year’s Championship can get close to Nottingham Forest.

Rock bottom of the division after losing six of their first seven games, Steve Cooper was tasked with turning things around and the ex-Swansea boss has done so in some fashion.

Accruing 76 points from his 38 league games in charge, they also boast the division's meanest defensive record in that period while no team has attempted more dribbles either.

It is a positive, entertaining brand of football that 42-year-old Cooper has instilled and for many neutrals, promotion would be a fitting and deserved way to round off their exhilarating season.

Contrasting styles

No team has fielded an older average age of starting XI than the Blades this term, with plenty of familiar faces in the ranks.

Crucially, John Egan, Jack Robinson and Chris Basham remain unbroken as their wily central defensive trio and are no doubt relishing the sizeable task of repelling their well-fancied opponents.

Conversely, the majority of Forest’s most telling contributions have come from youthful sources — most notably down their right flank via the duo of Djed Spence and Brennan Johnson.

Flying full-back Spence, 21, has terrified second-tier defences with his blistering pace and dribbling, proving the perfect foil for 20-year-old Johnson to run riot.

The Welsh winger, supposedly being courted by several Premier League clubs, has racked up a startling 26 direct goal involvements (16 goals, 10 assists) and is truly a mercurial talent.

Finding a way

Sheffield United boss Paul Heckingbottom will take a win by any means necessary
Sheffield United boss Paul Heckingbottom will take a win by any means necessary

While Forest enter the tie as narrow favourites, it could be argued that their opponents are better equipped to deal with the high-pressure situation of a play-off semi-final.

The South Yorkshiremen are content to play matches in the realms of fine margins, with seven of their final 10 games this term having two goals or less in them.

With that in mind, grinding out a result on home turf that they can defend at the City Ground will do perfectly — with the Blades boss caring little for anything other than the final outcome.

Heckingbottom said: "No-one remembers who has finished fifth, but they’ll remember us if we go up.

"The most important thing is these three games. We’ve got to get through two real tough ones first, the nitty-gritty end and you need big moments, whether that’s from players, big decisions, that little moment, the roll of the ball going your way.

"You take anything you can to get in that final in two weeks’ time."

Finishing the job

For Cooper and Forest, it is now about not letting the magnitude of the occasion overwhelm them.

It is generally accepted that having a play-off second leg in front of your own supporters is an advantage and the City Ground will be bouncing on Tuesday evening, regardless of how Saturday’s opening exchange pans out.

A memorable FA Cup run earlier this year saw Arsenal and Leicester both turned over at the famous old ground and there may well be one more special evening to come.

Cooper explained: "A home game here at the City Ground has this real sense of belonging. When you are part of something like that, you just want to give your best, really. 

"It is the least that we can do. I am just really focused and motivated right now on not letting anybody down."

Tags

ChampionshipNottingham ForestSheffield United

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