Fixture: Sheffield United v Northampton Town, Sky Bet League One
Date/kick-off time: Saturday, December 31, 1pm kick-off
Venue: Bramall lane
Weather forecast: 9C, cloudy
Outs and doubts: United: James Wilson (ankle), Harry Chapman (ankle). Cobblers: Sam Hoskins (hamstring), JJ Hooper (thigh), Brendan Moloney (knee)
Betting: United 8/15, draw 16/5, Northampton 5/1
Form guide: Blades WWWLLD, Cobblers WLLWLL
Avg. goals scored/conceded per game: United 1.8/1.0, Northampton 1.5/1.4
Likely line-ups: United (3-5-2): Moore; Ebanks-Landell, Basham, O’Connell; Lafferty, Coutts, Fleck, Duffy, Freeman; Done, Sharp. Northampton (4-4-2): Smith; Phillips, Zakuani, Nyatanga, Buchanan; Potter, O’Toole, Taylor, Anderson; Revell, Richards
Man in the middle: Darren Drysdale
Last time out: Sheffield United 2 (Sharp 2) Oldham Athletic 0; Oxford United 0 Northampton Town 1 (Richards)
Most recent meeting: Wednesday, October 10, 1990 – Sheffield United 2 Northampton Town 1
Record v Sheffield United: P9 W0 D1 L8
Opposition view: “Northampton are a good solid club,” said Chris Wilder ahead of Saturday’s reunion with his old employers. “There’s no doubt about it, there’s an affiliation, there can’t not be after two-and-a-half years and I always look for their result. But there’s won’t be anything handed out from me and there won’t be anything handed out from them because I want to turn them over and they’ll want to do the same to us.” Read more from Wilder here.
Cobblers connection: Well, this is an easy one. And it’s rather fitting that the Cobblers should end such a memorable year by coming toe-to-toe with the two men who were responsible for so much of their success. It will be of little surprise to Northampton fans to see Chris Wilder and Alan Knill thriving at Sheffield United having witnessed their work first-hand at Sixfields, and, with the help of some inside information, the pair will now be plotting Town’s downfall this weekend.
James Heneghan’s preview: Rooted to the bottom of the table after four games, Chris Wilder’s dream move from Sixfields to boyhood club Sheffield United initially threatened to descend into a nightmare, but 14 wins in 19 games later and his stock has soared to new heights as he prepares for weekend’s meeting with his former employers.
For any Northampton fan privileged enough to live through and witness first-hand the wonders of last season, Wilder’s stunning start to life at the Blades would have come as no surprise and it seems certain that the former Cobblers boss will be the man to finally end United’s five-year stay in the third tier of English football.
And it’s not just the results that has earned Wilder the love of his new fanbase. It’s his attacking, high tempo and entertaining style of football – again something which is familiar to those at Sixfields – that has helped fans flock to Bramall Lane in their numbers this season, with attendances reaching as high as 26,000.
A similar amount will be expected on Saturday when Wilder has the opportunity to take down his old club, though it’s unlikely he’d take much pleasure from doing so given the close bond he formed with Cobblers supporters during this tumultuous but incredibly successful 29-month spell at Sixfields.
Those fans are certain to acknowledge the remarkable job Wilder did during Saturday’s encounter but for those 90 minutes, his focus will be solely on winning a game of football and if he manages to succeed, United could well be top of the pile going into 2017, just as Wilder’s Northampton were flying high in League Two going into 2016.
Wilder’s 2016 can be summed up in this amazing stat: with victory over Oldham Athletic last time out, he chalked up his 102nd point of the year - 47 of those coming with Sheffield United, the other 55 with Northampton.
And he’ll be looking to add three more to that tally on New Year’s Eve when the Cobblers come to his hometown.
Still striving to find their feet in League One, it’s perhaps not the best time for Northampton and Rob Page to run into the high-flying Blades but after the manner of Boxing Day’s dramatic win over Oxford United, they do at least have a platform to build from.
The biggest challenge for Page and his side this weekend will be how they nullify United’s rampant attack, spearheaded by League One’s top scorer Billy Sharp whose 16 goals have played a major role in catapulting the Blades up to second, within a point of leaders Scunthorpe United.
A similarly stout defensive display as the one at Oxford on Monday, when Northampton recorded their first league clean sheet in three months, would do the trick.
Just as it did at the Kassam Stadium, much may depend on form of Gabriel Zakuani who was outstanding in that win and will be keen to ensure his last game before the Africa Cup of Nations is a positive one, if Saturday’s clash does indeed prove his last ahead of captaining his country in the biennial competition.
Zakuani’s absence will be keenly felt during his time away, and Town will also be without fellow defender Brendan Moloney for at least another couple of weeks, while Sam Hoskins is a doubt for Saturday despite returning to training.
The rush of games at this time of year often sees managers rotate their options but given their performance at Oxford, Page may well stick with both the same personnel and 4-4-2 system for the trip to Sheffield.
If that is the case, the attack will again be led by Marc Richards and Alex Revell. The duo were a handful for the Oxford defence all afternoon on Boxing Day and showed glimpses that their partnership is beginning to blossom.
Despite that, though, there is still concern on the goal front: Richards’ last-minute strike was the first goal either he or Revell have scored since November 5.
That inability to find the net for the two men who, in theory, should provide Northampton’s chief goal threat has been a contributing factor to their poor form over the past two months and the sooner both return to regular goalscoring form, the better, ideally starting on Saturday.
Up against arguably the division’s best side, Northampton need to be firing on all cylinders. And if their past record against Sheffield United is anything to go by – no win in nine previous meetings – they might need lady luck to be on their side too.
Prediction: Sheffield United 2 Northampton Town 1