It is a showdown between two teams who have surpassed pre-season expectations and have glorious European qualifications in their sights – but Leicester City and Sheffield United go into Thursday’s match at the King Power Stadium with very different form and contrasting frames of mind.
Whereas Leicester are beset by injuries and bruised by Sunday’s collapse at Bournemouth – so bad that Brendan Rodgers said he was shocked – Sheffield United are buoyant. Reaching Europe for the first time in the club’s history has become a tantalising possibility thanks to the 10 points Chris Wilder’s side have taken from the past 12 available, including wins over Tottenham, Wolves and Chelsea. United have toppled better-resourced sides so often this season it is no longer a surprise when they do. They were tipped to find the going punishingly hard in the Premier League but now even some of their players have to get used to feeling like favourites.
“I was thinking before Saturday’s game against Chelsea [which United won 3-0]: ‘I really fancy us today’ but at the back of my mind I was also thinking: ‘Come on, it’s Chelsea, that can’t be right,’” says Ben Osborn, the midfielder who has excelled since coming into the side four games ago to replace the injured John Fleck. “It doesn’t feel natural to be so confident, at least for me, but maybe that’s because I’ve not been in the team so long.”
Osborn knows the confidence is well founded. “The way the gaffer and [assistant manager] Alan Knill dissect the game and set out our plan, you go into it thinking: ‘Everyone’s going to be at it, we’re going to possibly work harder than the opposition, we’re possibly going to be winning the battles all over the pitch and then if we can use that bit of quality we’ve got, then it’s going to be a very difficult game for the opposition.’ Most teams we come up against have got outstanding individuals but we know that if we can lock those down and do what we do well, it’s going to be really tough for anyone.”
United have enjoyed making a mockery of pre-season predictions and get a giggle out of the fact that even now their success is often attributed to “off-days” by superior sides. “First and foremost it’s always a poor performance by Chelsea or Spurs before it’s a good performance by us,” says Osborn. “It’s a bit of a running joke. The gaffer keeps saying: ‘We’re 34 games in, the bubble’s going to burst!’”
Fleck has a chance of being fit for Thursday so Osborn may find himself back on the bench but the 25-year-old has done so well that Wilder is under no pressure to change his lineup.
The same cannot be said of Rodgers. The dwindling form that has put a top-four finish at risk for Leicester is partly down to not coping with the loss of key players, which is why their manager will give James Maddison and Ben Chilwell as much time as possible to prove their fitness. Neither is expected to make it.
Maddison’s absence in recent weeks has deprived Leicester of creativity. If Chilwell is unavailable again, Leicester will have to take on United without three of their first-choice defenders, because Ricardo Pereira is also injured and Caglar Soyuncu suspended after being sent off for kicking Callum Wilson in frustration during the meltdown at Bournemouth.
“Whatever about the tactical and technical aspects, it was the spirit that concerned me more,” says Rodgers of the Bournemouth debacle. “There was a sort of shock and disbelief [at losing the lead] that filtered through to our performance. We spoke some home truths after the game.”
Rodgers says he expects a strong reaction. To fill the holes in his defence, he may give a rare start to Wes Morgan who, at 36, is not as fresh as he used to be but has the nous Leicester need. “His calmness and leadership qualities will be a big help,” says Rodgers. “If the likes of him and Ryan Bennett are asked to come in and do a job, they will.”