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Sheffield United-Southampton Preview
There will be no play in Europe next season for Sheffield United, who look to complete an overachieving term on a positive note Sunday when they face Southampton at St Mary's.
The Blades (14-12-11) can finish no better than their current spot of eighth in the table, which is one spot beyond the last Europa League berth an English team can receive provided Chelsea win the FA Cup over Arsenal on Aug. 1. Still, there is much for Chris Wilder to take pride in as the promoted Blades impressed everyone with their organization and ability to defend as a pack.
With a victory, Sheffield United can match their highest top-flight point total since also accruing 57 in the last season of the First Division in 1991-92. Claiming eighth would also mark their best placement since finishing sixth in the First Division in 1974-75. While there were some broken spirits after Monday's 1-0 home loss to Everton that put an end to European aspirations, Wilder and his front office are already looking for the next set of players who can help Sheffield continue to thrive in the Premier League in year two as opposed to simply survive.
"We'll try and produce what we have done over the last amount of windows, which is to bring players in, improve them and make them better, which adds to their value," Wilder told The Star, offering praise of Sheffield United head of recruitment Paul Mitchell. "It's never been easy and pound for pound, what we've done with what we've had to spend, we've done remarkably well. Mitch and the guys doing the hard yards and the studying - they deserve enormous credit."
After going their first eight Premier League road matches without a loss, the Blades have struggled to rediscover that form outside Bramall Lane in Project Restart with three losses and two draws. Overall, Sheffield are 1-3-5 in their last nine on the road and have scored just three goals in those contests.
Following two seasons of backsliding that included barely surviving the relegation scrap, Southampton (14-7-16) appear to have stabilised in Ralph Hasenhuttl's first full season at the club. That is no small feat considering the 9-0 humiliation they endured at home to Leicester City in October - the worst top-flight home defeat in the history of English football.
The Saints will finish either 11th or 12th depending on what they and Everton achieve in the final matchday, and they are sprinting to the tape entering this match unbeaten in their last six overall (3-3-0) - their longest such run under Hasenhuttl.
"What I have seen in the last weeks is definitely the best I've seen so far since I've been the manager here at this club," Hasenhuttl told the club's official website. "This is good, but it's not something to rest on or a time to lean back. That is the goal for the weekend: take these three points, with everything we have, and then go unbeaten into the break - that would give us massive self-confidence for next season.
"From 16th to 12th or 11th is a good step, especially after our very difficult start in September, October."
The unbeaten run includes a 2-0 victory at Bournemouth on Monday when Danny Ings bagged his 21st goal of the term, matching his career high set at any level of English football when he did so for Burnley in the Championship in 2013-14. Ings needs one goal to join Matt Le Tissier as the only Southampton players to score at least 10 goals home and away in the Premier League.
Ings is also two behind Leicester City's Jamie Vardy for the Premier League Golden Boot, and Hasenhuttl thinks his striker can make a go at Vardy's standard over the final 90 minutes of the campaign.
"It would be an amazing thing for him, absolutely," the gaffer added. "I think it's worth even more when it's for a club like Southampton - not for one of the top clubs in England. We are very proud of him. He's one of our own, and we will do everything to support him on the weekend to score again."
Hasenhuttl did get some good news regarding his back line as central defender Jan Bednarek has returned to the team after missing out Monday with a muscle injury. Bednarek has started all but three of Southampton's league matches.
Southampton are seeking the league double after a 1-0 victory at Bramall Lane in September courtesy Moussa Djenepo's goal on 66 minutes. This is Sheffield's first trip to St Mary's since both clubs were in the Championship in 2009, and the Blades are 1-2-2 all-time in Premier League fixtures versus the Saints.
Updated July 25, 2020