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Sheffield United-Wolverhampton Preview
An ability to stay true to themselves served Wolverhampton well last term as they not only survived their first season following promotion but also thrived as they are now into the knockout round of the Europa League.
New boys Sheffield United have followed that path blazed by Wolves heading into an intriguing and unexpected showdown between the two top-six sides at Molineux on Sunday.
In the 51 matches since arriving in the top flight, Nuno Espirito Santo's side have shown an ability to grind out points and occasionally steal some as well. It has been more of the same this term as Wolves (4-7-2) are unbeaten in their last eight league matches (4-4-0) and have only one loss in their last 14 (7-6-1) in all competitions.
Wolverhampton also punched their ticket to the final 32 of the Europa League on Thursday in a wild 3-3 draw at Portuguese side Sporting Braga. Raul Jimenez canceled out an early goal in the 13th minute before turning playmaker for markers by Matt Doherty and Adama Traore minutes apart later in the first half.
Though Wolves conceded twice after intermission, the point was enough to see them through for a top-two finish in Group K with an outside chance to claim top honours in the finale at home versus Besiktas in a fortnight.
"I'm proud that we're qualified, and we obviously started the game well in the first-half; but in the second-half, I don't really know what happened, we weren't at the races. So, we're proud of qualification, but not proud of really the result in the end," Doherty told the club's official website. "When looking at other teams playing in European competitions in previous seasons, you always wish it was you. It's our turn this year and we're making a pretty good fist of it to qualify for the next round."
Aside from their two-match breakdown defensively around the September international break in losses to Everton and Chelsea, Wolves have been a rather stingy unit defensively. They conceded eight goals in those two defeats - which matches the total of goals allowed in their other 11 league matches.
Jimenez has been in blistering form, with the Mexico international riding a five-match goal-scoring streak in all competitions and totaling seven goals in his last eight matches overall. Since arriving on loan from Benfica before the start of last season and then making his move to Wolves permanent, Jimenez has racked up 28 goals and 11 assists in 64 matches.
Sheffield United (4-6-3) have been the surprise package of the opening third of the campaign, entering this contest sixth on 18 points and leading Burnley and Arsenal on goal difference. The Blades' commitment to defence has been a key component of their success - their 12 goals yielded trail only second-place Leicester City (8) and table-topping Liverpool (11) - but Chris Wilder's side finally showed an offensive spark to balance it out.
After clearly outplaying Manchester United for the first hour-plus of last Sunday's match at Bramall Lane and leading 2-0 through goals by John Fleck and Lys Mousset, it all suddenly came undone as the leviathan side erupted for three goals in a six-minute span. Undaunted, Sheffield pushed forward for an equaliser and found it at the death through former Manchester United academy product Oliver McBurnie, surviving a VAR challenge to gain a split of the points in a pulsating 3-3 draw.
While it is still too early to consider the Blades worthy of European play, Wilder's side have taken six points in their first five matches against the "Big Six" and stretched their league unbeaten streak to six (3-3-0).
Sheffield United are also unbeaten on the road, recording a win and five draws while conceding only five goals.
"Staying up is still the main objective. But we can still do more," striker Callum Robinson told The Star. "Against Manchester United, it wasn't just about goals, for 70 minutes we outplayed them. That was a really good thing to see. It's a results-based game but it's nice to see us controlling them as well."I wouldn't say we've changed targets," he added. "We just go into every single game wanting to do the best we can, keep on winning and learning as a group."
McBurnie has scored both his goals as a substitute, and has teamed with Fleck, Mousset, and John Lundstram to account for 11 of Sheffield's 18 goals in all competitions. Wilder is pleased with Fleck and Lundstram taking on more of a goal-scoring role, noting to The Star that "Even though we go from game to game, there are certain targets we have for the midfield scoring. They can't just leave it to the boys at the top of the pitch."
This will be the first Premier League meeting between the sides, who last met in the Championship in the 2017-18 season. The home team won both those contests, and Wolverhampton is 3-1-0 in their last four at Molineux versus Sheffield United dating back to the 2007-08 campaign.
Updated November 29, 2019