Underdog Sheffield United eyes Champions League spot

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              Sheffield United's goalkeeper Dean Henderson gestures during the English Premier League soccer match between Sheffield United and Manchester City at Bramall Lane in Sheffield, England, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
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When it comes to the Premier League’s greatest underdog tale, nothing can top Leicester winning the Premier League at odds of 5,000-1 in the 2015-16 season.

There’s another unlikely story brewing, however. Another “how are they doing this?” run that shows no sign of ending.

It could yet culminate in Sheffield United playing in the Champions League.

The club from the “Steel City” was in last place in the third division only 3½ years ago, but is now sixth in the Premier League and battling with the likes of Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United to secure what’s likely to be England’s fourth and final qualification spot for Europe’s top competition.

It’s a team whose main starting striker has yet to score a goal this season, whose center backs — in a unique tactic — cause chaos by charging forward and often finding themselves more advanced than the midfield, and whose locally born manager was once its ball boy.

The Blades, as they are nicknamed, are even receiving admiring glances from some of soccer’s deepest thinkers.

“As a manager,” Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola said last month of Sheffield United, “you see some teams so you can improve. And this is the one.”

This is no flash in the pan, either. United, which was widely tipped to get relegated in its first season in the top division in 12 years, is five points behind fourth-place Chelsea with a third of the league campaign remaining.

After a 1-0 win at Crystal Palace on Saturday, United’s next three games are at home against Bournemouth, Brighton and Norwich — three teams fighting against relegation. Chelsea, meanwhile, is stumbling in its pursuit of the Champions League after winning only four of its last 13 games.

The race for fourth feels wide open.

No Sheffield United team has been this high in the standings since the mid-1970s. The club has never played in European club competition in its 131-year history.

So, it was recently put to manager Chris Wilder, could the Blades soon be cutting it in Europe?

“Europe and all that,” he said rather dismissively. “I guess that might be an end-of-season trip.”

Wilder — United’s frank, down-to-earth, say-it-like-it-is coach — is the architect of the club’s stunning rise. A fan as a kid, he went on to play for United in two separate spells as a right back before, having been linked numerous times with becoming its manager, took charge in the offseason of 2016 after a 15-year coaching career spent in the lower or non-leagues.

It was a tough start at his boyhood club for Wilder, who has a Sheffield United tattoo and a distinctive all-black look in wearing a shiny vest over a training top.

The team lost three of its first four games under him to lie bottom of League One in August 2016, its worst league position since the early 1980s. Wilder switched to a three-man defense and began to deploy an unorthodox tactic that saw the team’s wide center backs racing forward inside or outside the wing backs to cause an overlap. It led to an overload of the flanks — and therefore confusion among opposition defenses — while one of United’s central midfielders covered in behind.

It’s a tactic still used to great effect by Wilder, and has been instilled into the club’s youth teams.

Some of the players survive from Wilder’s first season, two of them being those overlapping center backs — Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham — and also homegrown striker Billy Sharp.

They are a big part of Wilder’s journey that has seen United win promotion in two of the last three league seasons to make it to the Premier League for the first time since 2007.

There’s still that humble, close-knit feel to the team, too. Before a recent away game against Liverpool, Wilder took his players to a park next to Anfield on the morning of the match for a light training session. After winning promotion to the Premier League in May last year, United’s players went to Las Vegas together.

United is now under sole control of Prince Abdullah, a member of the Saudi royal family, following his High Court battle with previous owner Kevin McCabe that ended last year. With more funds available to strengthen the squad, the club has broken its transfer record five times in past eight months — most recently for Norway midfielder Sander Berge, who made his debut over the weekend — but they’ve hardly been big-name acquisitions.

“We’re in a great place as a football club,” Wilder said, “with the quality we’ve signed, the results we’re getting, and the performances we’re getting even when we’re not at our best.

“But the key is to not pat yourself on the back.”

Can Wilder keep the performance levels going? Can he finally get a goal out of David McGoldrick, the striker who hasn’t scored in 19 appearances — despite having 36 attempts on goal — but whose work rate makes him an important cog in Wilder’s United? Can his defense, tied for second for most shutouts, stay strong?

The Premier League’s first winter break will allow United’s players to recharge ahead of the final, unlikely push for Champions League qualification.

With opposition teams still seemingly unable to handle with the unusual tactics deployed by Wilder, expect United to be in the fight until the end.