Only four places separate Sheffield United from Manchester City going into 2019’s final weekend, yet manager Chris Wilder freely admit the odds on his Blades returning from the north west with three points are very slim.
Ask him about taking on the great Pep Guardiola as an equal, and he laughs.
But Wilder’s team have not reached seventh in the Premier League by over-doing the respect, and once the whistle blows at Eastland at 6pm on Sunday – as at Liverpool on Thursday – there will be no damage limitation, no thoughts of free hits, just the usual attempt to add another scalp to their impressive collection.
As Oliver Norwood puts it: “We don’t fear anyone. We never have, and we never will.”
That attitude brought victory over Arsenal and draws with Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea. Liverpool are the only “Big Six” side to beat Sheffield United on their Premier League return, and then only because of a calamitous mistake by goalkeeper Dean Henderson.
“There has to be a total respect but not overdoing it,” insists Wilder.
“We won’t do anything more (in terms of preparation) on Manchester City than we did for Watford (the Blades’ Boxing Day opponents) or possibly they won’t get on the bus!
“I don’t see it as a free hit. We’re in this position on merit.
“Manchester City are one of the leading lights of English and world football but this league does pitch teams who have come out of the Championship against the likes of Manchester City.
“We’ve got to have the bounce of the ball, a bit of luck and Manchester City not to have a great day but it won’t be the biggest shock in the history of football if we get a result. We understand we’re right up against it, though.”
United’s strength is the freedom their wing-backs, central midfielders and even outside centre-backs are given to attack. Left wing-back Enda Stevens understands it is important they do not go into their shells.
“There’s a balance,” he comments. “City away there might be more onus on us to defend than attack but the moments you do get the chance to go forward, you have to go.
“We’ll have to defend, that’s natural. Most games away from home you have to do that but the manager will want us on the front foot, pressing high up the pitch and he’ll want us to win.
“The manager gives a licence to me, Jack (O’Connell), George (Baldock) and Bashy (Chris Basham) to go and express ourselves, go create chances, get on the end of things and score goals.
“We’d never get star-struck. We feel like we belong in this league. We’ve got a dressing room that’s confident in our own ability. We respect teams but don’t necessarily fear them.”
Manchester City started 1999 as a third-tier side, a status the Blades held as recently as 2016.
“My pal Gareth Taylor played in the Second Division play-off final,” recalls Wilder. “I see Paul Dickov now and again, Nicky Weaver working across the city.
“If they don’t win that penalty shoot-out, who knows where they would have gone? But these things happen – a little bit of luck and they’re off and running.
“When people talk about how far we’ve come, it takes a lot of things, not just on the pitch, to give them the opportunity to go from that play-off final against Gillingham to one of the most powerful football clubs in the world.”
Sheikh Mansour’s petrodollars have clearly been the biggest but former Barcelona coach Guardiola’s management has been crucial too.
“He just changed the game and not many managers have done that in the history of football,” says Wilder admiringly.
“They had great players and they bought great players. They’re in the top three, top five of the world’s most successful football clubs. They had the facilities, the infrastructure and the history but they still had to change the way they played.
“I was watching an interview with (Wayne) Rooney and (Gary) Neville talking about the 2011 Champions League final (when Guardiola’s Barcelona comprehensively beat Manchester United) and they just didn’t allow anybody to get their heads up. They had answers to any sort of obstacles put in front of them.
“It’s difficult to replicate and many people have tried but certain parts of that have changed the outlook of the game for the better.
“I’m still not thinking I’m an equal (with Guardiola) in terms of his career and what I’ve done, but for our football club to go there in the last game of an incredible year and a great three years is fabulous. We all want this to be a regular Premier League fixture and I’m not sure Manchester City will be relegated in the next few years so we’ve got to show we’re worthy of playing at this level.”
Wilder’s men sit sixth in the table with 29 points and have lost only once in their last 12 top-flight matches.
Wilder believes consistency has been key to the club’s success so far and he sees no reason why that should change between now and May.
“It’s a fabulous start from a newly-promoted side but I’m a bit greedy actually as I feel we could’ve done a little bit better,” said Wilder.
City lost 3-2 at Wolverhampton last night, losing goalkeeper Ederson to an early red card at Molineux.
Raheem Sterling put City 2-0 up, before goals from Adama Traore, Raul Jimenez and Matt Doherty completed the comeback.