FA Cup Fifth Round Preview: Sheffield United v Walsall
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Pedro Matias is just one of a number of overseas stars at Walsall who will pose a threat against Sheffield United (ALLSPORT)
Sheffield United are currently enjoying one of their best seasons for years. Having reached the semi-final of the League Cup and sustained a promotion challenge thus far, the Blades are now one step away from the FA Cup quarter-final. Boss Neil Warnock, who was recently awarded Manager of the Month for January, though is looking for a boost with his side having lost three of their last four games.
"Despite what some people have said, this isn't going to be an easy game," he said. "Walsall are always going to make it tough. We know this is going to be difficult, but we've prepared for that."
After their terrific charge up the First Division and superb League Cup run, the wheels, whilst not falling off their bandwagon, have buckled slightly and all their hard work so far is in danger of being ruined. Warnock was not happy to see his side squander a two-goal lead against ten-man Ipswich last week and he has stated that it is now time for the fans to really get behind the side and spur them on to glory.
"The crowd can make all the difference," he explained. "That's what the home fans did at Ipswich last week and that's what gave them the impetus to claw themselves back into the game.
"It's important for the supporters to really get behind us."
Walsall can forget about their league struggle for 90 minutes and concentrate on booking a rare place in the last 16 of the world's greatest cup competition. Despite their lowly placing and relatively small support, the Saddlers are one of those sides that conjure up an idyllic vision due to the amount of overseas stars on their books.
With two Brazilians, a couple of Portuguese, a brace of Australians, a pair of Jamaicans, a Spaniard and a New Zealander, manager Colin Lee certainly possesses a very cosmopolitan squad and there were five more in the squad before the summer clear-out happened. But in today's football world where it is cheaper to look abroad than plunge for home-grown talent, Walsall have taken advantage of some serious bargains and they are more than holding their own in Division One and look set to prolong their stay even further.
Progression to the quarter-final would something the club would only have dreamt about before the season began, and with a whole host of Premiership sides already fallen by the wayside, Walsall have a great chance of going even further. But first Sheffield United, a side that the Saddlers don't have a recent good record against, but with nothing to lose, boss Lee is sure to have his troops fired up for the big occasion.
Sheffield United (League only): WDWWLL: After a tremendous run that has seen the Blades mount the pressure on the division's top two, they have just gone off the boil in recent weeks, losing their last two league games, at Millwall (0-1) and Ipswich (2-3). They were 2-0 up against ten-man Ipswich, but proceeded to turn a probable victory into a defeat. In their two league games this season, United have taken four points off Walsall and so have the upper hand psychologically.
Walsall (League only) LDLDWL: Colin Lee's men have only two of their last 11 games – against Wimbledon (2-0) and Brighton (1-0) and are without a win away from home since beating Nottingham Forest 2-1 in the League Cup way back at the beginning of October – a run of 12 games. That said though, they are actually unbeaten on their travels in the year 2003 having drawn at Reading twice and Forest once.
Sheffield United boss Neil Warnock will be without influential striker Dean Windass who is cup-tied, so either Wayne Allison or Tommy Mooney will start in his place. On-loan defender Wayne Quinn should be fit despite limping off during the defeat at Ipswich.
Walsall have been boosted by the return of defenders Ian Roper and Danny Hay. Roper has recovered from a groin strain, while summer signing Hay returns after serving a one-match ban. Neil Emblen won't be available as he has returned to Norwich following the end of his loan spell.
Players To Watch
Sheffield United: Michael Brown: The former Manchester City midfielder has enjoyed a superb season in the centre of midfield for the Blades, so much so that he's constantly being linked to Premiership sides. Always quite a decent player at Maine Road, he has improved ten-fold since arriving at Bramall Lane and with him on board, promotion to the top-flight looks a distinct possibility.
Walsall: Junior: The Saddlers have a knack of unearthing foreign gems and this Brazilian striker is another one. Having initially joined on loan from Brazilian side Trezze, Junior is now a permanent member of the Bescot Stadium set-up and his strike partnership with Jorge Leitao is one of the most eye-catching outside the Premiership.