Three days after confirming their spot in the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League, Manchester City turn their attention to another cup competition, as they take on Sheffield United in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley Stadium. What hope does the Opta supercomputer give the Championship side? Read on to find out.
Manchester City vs Sheffield United: Quick Hits
- Manchester City overwhelming favourites (83.1%) to win this game and progress to the final.
- If they were to win and keep a clean sheet, they would become the first team to reach the FA Cup final without conceding a goal since Everton in 1965-66.
- Sheffield United the first side outside of the top flight to reach the semi-final stage since Reading in 2014-15.
It’s fair to say expectations aren’t high for Sheffield United in this match. The Blades have done brilliantly to reach this stage of the competition, even defeating Spurs in the fifth round, but the Manchester City behemoth is a tough one to overcome, as Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich found out, and Real Madrid will fear.
It’s perhaps not as rare as you’d think for a side from outside the top flight to reach the semi-finals of the FA Cup, but it’s not particularly common either. The last to do so were Reading in 2014-15 – they managed to take Arsenal to extra-time before Alexis Sánchez’s unforgettable winner. Especially for Adam Federici.
You have to go back to 1991-92 to locate the last instance of a team from outside the top flight eliminating a top-flight side in this round of the competition, with Sunderland beating Norwich at Hillsborough. Since then, each of the last 13 such matchups have seen the top-flight side progress to the final, although on four occasions the game did at least go to extra-time.
As the league table suggests, Sheffield United are the second-best team in the Championship this season, clearly a level behind an outstanding Burnley side. The concern for Paul Heckingbottom’s men is that Manchester City put six past Burnley only last month.
As is often the case during the final stretch, City have seriously clicked into gear over the past few months, and you wouldn’t expect this to be the game that halts their run of form… but it has happened before, with a third-tier Wigan Athletic ousting Pep Guardiola’s side from this competition in 2017-18. Nonetheless, that proved to be an error they had no interest in repeating, winning 21 matches in a row against sides from a lower division since Will Grigg caught fire.
The Blades can maybe find hope in the possibility that City’s attention may be focused elsewhere – their next match post-Wembley is at home to Arsenal next Wednesday, in what is likely to be a winner-takes-all encounter in terms of Premier League success. These players are experienced with these kinds of situations, but Arsenal are a mighty foe, and that fixture will surely be in the minds of many at the club.
Manchester City 1-0 Sheffield United: 30 January 2021 (Premier League)
Manchester City won all four of their matches against Sheffield United without conceding a goal during the Blades’ recent two-year appearance in the Premier League under Chris Wilder. These weren’t entirely one-sided encounters though as the previous line may suggest, with the Blades only conceding five goals across the four matches, while keeping City at bay until the second half on two occasions.
The last meeting came in January 2021, game 12 of a 21-match winning run in all competitions for City. When Gabriel Jesus netted after only nine minutes at the Etihad, Wilder probably feared being blown away, but the hosts only had nine more shots during the following 80 or so minutes and they combined for a lower xG total (0.74) than Jesus’s opener (0.81).
Sheffield United have actually won all four of their FA Cup ties against Manchester City, although three of those did come before the start of the Second World War. Their last meeting in this competition saw the Blades win 2-1 at Bramall Lane in January 2008 in the fourth round – the BBC Sport ‘Player Rater’ man of the match was Jon Stead, who is unlikely to come out of retirement to fire them to victory on Saturday.
After a few slip-ups between February and March where it looked like Sheffield United could lose their automatic play-off spot to Middlesbrough, the Blades have since rediscovered their form over the past month or so, winning five of their last six league matches. The only defeat in that run came away to Burnley, where they had to play over 75 minutes with 10 men.
With seven points separating themselves in second place in the Championship and Luton in third, Paul Heckingbottom’s men would have to implode to avoid becoming a Premier League side once again next season.
Frustratingly for Heckingbottom, much of their recent form can be attributed to the brilliant performances of Tommy Doyle and James McAtee, the former of who scored the last-minute winner against Blackburn in the quarter-finals after Oli McBurnie had levelled things. If you’re wondering why that would frustrate him, it’s because they are both on loan from Manchester City and are therefore ineligible to play on Saturday.
On the other hand, team news for Manchester City appears, largely, smooth sailing. Phil Foden is now back in training, but Nathan Ake is a doubt after picking up a hamstring injury against Bayern,
The Blues have been in imperious form of late despite his absence, winning each of their last eight matches domestically while firing off 27 goals in the process – an average of 3.4 goals per game. When they’re in full-on trophy-hunting mode, it’s hard to imagine them losing a game.
A switch in systems post-World Cup, in part due to the outgoing João Cancelo and the need for extra defensive stability behind Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne, has seen City find one of their meanest runs of form in the Guardiola era.
For a man who at one stage seemed destined to name an XI with 10 midfielders, maybe it’s surprising to see Guardiola line up with four centre-backs of late, but these are the solutions he discovers when winning is essential.
If both sides stick to their current systems, seven of the 20 outfield players that start on Saturday could be natural central defenders.
Players to Watch
Sheffield United: Iliman Ndiaye
Sheffield United will require some magic if they’re to get anything out of Saturday’s encounter, and one man capable of providing just that is Iliman Ndiaye.
Ndiaye went from being a teenager plying his trade in England’s non-league Boreham Wood to playing a part in Senegal’s recent World Cup campaign in the space of three years, and it’s that level of determination that will be required against a City side that will likely starve him of the ball.
Ndiaye has comfortably been Sheffield United’s biggest threat in the Championship this season, leading all team-mates for goals (13), assists (eight), chances created in open play (43), dribbles completed (90) and touches in the opposition box (170).
When Sheffield United eliminated Premier League opposition in Tottenham in this year’s fifth round, it was Ndiaye who made the difference, with some deft close control in the box leaving the Spurs backline unable to snatch the ball from his grasp, ultimately firing past Fraser Forster. Ndiaye is every part a Premier League player and he’ll want to prove that on the biggest stage this weekend.
Manchester City: Jack Grealish
When Jack Grealish first arrived at Manchester City it felt like watching Chantelle on Celebrity Big Brother – he seemed starstruck, and it resulted in performances that lacked self-belief. Now he looks like he belongs in a changing room of world class players, and he’s performed at that level himself of late.
Phil Foden’s struggles with injuries this season have afforded Grealish consistent minutes on City’s left-hand side, and he’s reaped the rewards as a result.
Only Kevin De Bruyne (12) has assisted more goals for City post-World Cup than Grealish (nine), and there’s no shame in that. With four goals to his name in the same period, he now has 13 goal involvements in 26 appearances since returning from Qatar.
Grealish is a key cog in the Manchester City machine right now, and it’s been a while since anyone mentioned how much he cost them.
Manchester City vs Sheffield United Prediction
Unsurprisingly, the supercomputer makes Man City the heavy favourites come kick-off, with Guardiola’s team given a huge 83.1% to progress. The draw (over 90 minutes) comes in at a 10.5% chance, while the likelihood of a shock Sheffield Utd win is a lowly 6.4% come full-time.
Manchester City have won all four of their FA Cup games this season by an aggregate score of 14-0, keeping clean sheets against Chelsea, Arsenal, Bristol City and Burnley so far. The last team to reach the FA Cup final without conceding a goal en route were Everton in 1965-66.
The winner of this tie plays the winner of Manchester United vs. Brighton & Hove Albion which takes place a day later.