Sheffield United have just five points to their name but can victory over Newcastle provide a springboard for Premier League survival? Michael Beardmore assesses their hopes.
To paraphrase The Shawshank Redemption, hope can be a good thing, perhaps the best of things - but it can be a dangerous thing too.
Sheffield United are far from serving the life sentence handed to lead character Andy Dufresne in one of the greatest films of all time but there must have been times this season it’s felt like it.
But hope, as it tends to, springs eternal and Tuesday’s victory at home to an admittedly struggling 10-man Newcastle, has raised a glimmer of belief among Blades fans that they could pull off the greatest of great escapes.
A few days ago, it might have seemed their sole aspiration was to better the lowest Premier League points tally (11) recorded by Derby in 2007-08 – the Rams’ solitary win that season, by the way, was a 1-0 home victory over Newcastle. Funny old game, eh?
Houdini would have nothing on this one if United crawl through that hole they've scratched in the prison cell wall but should they be really be as unbackably short as 1/20 to be relegated when they are only nine points from safety with half the season still to play?
You can get 12/1 on Chris Wilder’s side to survive and while their situation seems hopeless, it’s worth bearing in mind their performances have merited more than the five points they have accumulated thus far.
United have lost 15 out of 18 league games but 11 of those have come by a single goal, with 4-1 and 3-0 defeats at Chelsea and Southampton, respectively, the only times they have come close to being hammered.
They have pushed Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Everton and Leicester to the wire – and speaking of the big boys…
The very likely answer to that question – sorry, Blades fans – is, virtually certainly, yes. Why? Take a gander at the fixture list – Tottenham (H), Manchester United (A), Manchester City (A).
The key game of that terrifying trilogy is the first one on Sunday. Anything that can be gleaned from the two trips to Manchester will be an unexpected bonus with the form United and City are in.
But Spurs are a slightly different matter – there will be little change, for example, in personnel in either squad from July’s fixture at Bramall Lane when the Blades humbled Jose Mourinho’s men 3-1.
Tottenham have clearly progressed enormously since then but their pre-Christmas wobble and the fact they have dropped points against Crystal Palace, Newcastle and, on Wednesday night, Fulham, shows they are not impregnable.
The Blades will go into that game on the back of successive victories – admittedly, neither the 3-2 FA Cup win at Bristol Rovers nor the victory over Newcastle were entirely convincing but the boost they will have given a side that had gone six months without winning cannot be underestimated.
Those games are followed by what is simply a must-win match at home to West Brom at the start of February, a month in which the Blades also visit Fulham and West Ham in two other important fixtures.
Key defender Jack O’Connell is slated to return from injury next month but it’s been at the other end of the pitch and, perhaps even more tellingly, off the pitch, where they have really suffered…
It seems crazy to even consider, given the current national circumstances, the possibility that fans might be allowed back into grounds before the end of the season. But some supporters, don’t forget, were allowed in stadia in Tier 1 and 2 areas as recently as last month.
It’s a long shot but let’s surmise, for a second, that vaccinations rise and cases fall over the next six weeks and that the turnstiles are opened, to least a couple of thousand supporters, come March.
Sheffield United’s final six home games, starting at the beginning of March, are against Southampton, Aston Villa, Arsenal, Brighton, Crystal Palace and Burnley – none easy but nor are they depressingly daunting.
The Blades managed to cope without their fans during Project Restart last summer – winning three of their four home games – but the lack of atmosphere has appeared to severely hamper them this campaign, gaining just four points from a possible 27.
Should the ‘Greasy Chip Butty’ army return for the run-in, the Blades showed last season they are quite capable of turning Bramall Lane into a fortress that can intimidate the best of visitors.
More than anything, though, what they need is goals – their total of nine in 18 games a joint Premier League low alongside Burnley, who have played two matches fewer.
Infogol stats, based on expected goals, show that they should sit 17th in the table – their xG based on the strength of chances created is 19 goals but they have only converted nine of those.
Lys Mousset has suffered an injury-plagued season while last term’s other joint top scorer Oli McBurnie has struggled for confidence, leaving David McGoldrick leading the way on four.
Might we, in the second half of the season, see more of Billy Sharp? He might be 34 and his two goals this campaign might both be from the penalty spot – including the winner against Newcastle – but he has proven throughout his career his ability to sniff out a goal which is what United desperately need right now.
Three teams have been bottom at Christmas and survived – West Bromwich Albion in 2004-05, Sunderland in 2013-14 and Leicester the following season (we all know what happened after that).
It’s not Christmas now though, you say? Well, it sort of is – the fact the season began a month later means we are now, at the 17/18 game mark, around where we would usually be at Christmas.
All three of those teams had 10 points at the stage, double the Blades’ tally now – and while all three had to produce a sustained run of form, they also benefited from a real lack of quality around them, just like there is this season.
In 2005 West Brom stayed up with 34 points, the lowest total to survive in Premier League history – but there have been plenty in a similar ballpark laying waste to the ’40 points for safety’ myth.
In the past 15 seasons, the 17th-placed top-flight team has survived with totals of 34, 38, 36, 35, 39, 40, 37, 39, 36, 39, 39, 40, 36, 36 and 35.
When you look at the bottom six, you could easily make a case that West Brom’s record will not last past this season – but even then it’s still a push for the Blades to get to 30 points based on their current ratio.
It’s not impossible, mind, and the optimists and romantics among you might find that 12/1 on the Blades staying up attractive – the price will certainly drop should they beat Spurs on Sunday.
But the pragmatists might be better served by backing United to finish above nearest strugglers West Brom – at 13/8, it’s far more palatable than the 2/5 on the opposite outcome.
The Blades are only three points behind and the Baggies have looked terrible, their draw at Anfield apart, since Sam Allardyce took over. United have conceded 10 goals fewer than the Baggies, despite having played a game more, and have a goal difference superior by eight.
On a similar theme, the price of an exact relegation order of West Brom 20th, Sheffield United 19th and Fulham 18th stands out at 15/2 with Sky Bet if you fancy the current bottom three to go down but the Blades to move above the Baggies. Even better, though is the massive 16/1 on offer if you substitute Brighton for Fulham given the Cottagers' recent resurgence.
Odds correct at 0830 GMT (14/01/21)
We are committed in our support of responsible gambling. Recommended bets are advised to over-18s and we strongly encourage readers to wager only what they can afford to lose.
If you are concerned about your gambling, please call the National Gambling Helpline on 0808 8020 133, or visit begambleaware.org.