Sheffield United v Walsall: McNulty challenged to replicate his Saints display in the league

Marc McNulty of Sheffield United and Sadio Mane of Southampton.
Marc McNulty of Sheffield United and Sadio Mane of Southampton.
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Sheffield United’s Cup heroes have been warned they face the axe today when the Blades return to league action.

Nigel Clough’s team beat Premier League Southampton on Tuesday night to secure a mouthwatering two-legged semi-final with Tottenham in the Capital One Cup.

The Blades also have top-flight opponents in the FA Cup, QPR, on the horizon, but first United must focus on league matters with Walsall the visitors to Bramall Lane today.

Ironically, the Saddlers are the only team to beat United in cup competition this season – a 1-0 defeat in the Johnstone’s Paints Trophy – having remained unbeaten in the FA Cup and League Cup.

But after the exertions on Tuesday night – plus the return of loan players like Chris O’Grady and Paddy McCarthy – Clough is set to rest some of his Cup stars.

“We have got to look against Southampton, physically it was a massive effort,” said assistant manager Andy Garner. “We have got to assess how fit they can be for Saturday.

“We will have a talk before the game, before we make our decision, but it’s about legs against Walsall as much as anything.

“The players might want to play again, but whether they are physically capable of doing that, we have to take that decision out of their hands.”

The match-winner against Saints, Marc McNulty, seems likely to retain his place in attack.

But Garner believes the Edinburgh-born striker – who has netted eight goals this season – is guilty of being “lazy” during games, and is demanding the 22-year-old Scotsman repeats the work ethic he showed on Tuesday.

“We had Marc before at Derby, and I remember when he came for his first training session here, a little trial, and he must have scored 20 goals, we had a shooting session and little game,” explained Garner.

“That’s him all over. He knows where the net is, a very good finisher.

“What he has to do is look at the Southampton video, see how hard he worked. He has now set the standard, and has to maintain that. We are not expecting anything less than that.

“I think that’s the hardest he has ever worked while he has been at this club and with that it’s the best he’s played.

“We have always rated him, but being totally honest, before the Southampton game we felt he had a little bit more in the tank.

“We have been telling him week-in, week-out, there’s a little bit more to come. Against Southampton he was outstanding, to cause the two centre-halves as much trouble as he did on his own was scary.

“It’s his all-round game too. Sometimes he can be a little bit lazy, I don’t know if he will mind me saying that or not.

“But he is a little bit lazy in terms of running the channels, but if he can make them runs – like against Southampton – then absolutely super.”

The Blades will play Spurs on Wednesday, January 21 at White Hart Lane, with the second leg in Sheffield on Wednesday, January 28.

Garner admits they wanted to avoid Premier League leaders Chelsea – who face Liverpool in the other semi-final – and is relishing the chance to add another scalp to United’s growing collection of top-flight clubs.

“The draw is absolutely magnificent,” he said. “When you see the team on the back of the newspaper, and we are there alongside Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham. It hits you straight away, should we be there? But we are there, and there’s a reason for that; we have some very good players. We deserve to be there.

“We didn’t really want Chelsea; the other two is a great opportunity for us to go and give a good account of ourselves.

“It’s not luck, we played some really good football against Southampton, created numerous chances; brilliant attitude and great effort.

“It just shows when everyone works together as a unit, you have a chance.”

With three League One games over the festive period, before the FA Cup trip to Loftus Road, Garner hopes the Blades can now improve their home form in the league. After today, they travel to Port Vale on Boxing Day, before hosting Scunthorpe next Sunday, December 28.

Asked if their latest Cup win can help their league form, Garner replied: “If it doesn’t I don’t know what will. Everyone should be buzzing. The only thing we get on Saturday should be disappointment, from the players who won’t be playing. We can only pick XI.

“There might be players who played the other night who don’t play against Walsall. They will be disappointed they are not in the side. But whoever plays, we are picking it for a reason.

“It’s down to them and to get that result against Walsall. If we put the effort we did in against Southampton, we won’t have any problems.

“There’s not been a confidence issue, I think the fans get a bit frustrated when it’s not going for us. They have a little go, but the players have to be brave enough to take that, and hopefully the fans will get behind us.

“How many times have we done this? We have been to Aston Villa, Fulham and West Ham. We know we have a good group of lads, good players.

“In League One they have to produce that week-in, week-out. As soon as you don’t, you might come unstuck, unfortunately.

“You saw what we did against Southampton. What a brilliant performance, but can we go and do that again from now until the end of the season?

“Another 30 games of Southamptons. The players have to realise that, and I think they do, that they have to produce that sort of level.

“Ever since Walsall beat us in the cup they have had a decent run. No disrespect to them, we played down there, lost 1-0 in a tight game, but we had numerous players not playing in that game.

“But we feel with a full-strength side, we have more than enough to get something from Saturday.”