Sunday sees Bramall Lane play host to its first behind closed doors fixture since the restart of the English domestic football season as Sheffield United take on Arsenal in an Emirates FA Cup quarter-final. When the sides were drawn together in March, the prospect of a sell-out crowd roaring on the Blades in their attempt to reach Wembley looked a mouth-watering one.
Much has changed since then, and sadly the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic deprive this tie of the raucous atmosphere it deserved. However, United and Arsenal have history when it comes to the cup, and having both endured disappointing restarts thus far, this is a big opportunity to reach the last four and create a platform for a return to form in the league.
The Blades lost 3-0 for the second match running at Manchester United on Wednesday, and have slipped to 8th in the Premier League table. They remain one place above their visitors in 9th, whose 2-0 victory at Southampton in midweek was an important boost after the worrying nature of defeats to Manchester City and Brighton and Hove Albion.
United will be the boosted by the returns of goalkeeper Dean Henderson and centre-back John Egan from their setback at Old Trafford. The Blades’ influential shot-stopper was ineligible to face his parent club, whilst the commanding centre-back has served his suspension having been sent off in defeat at Newcastle last Sunday. Left-sided centre-back Jack O’Connell has certainly been missed having been injured since the restart of the campaign, but manager Chris Wilder hopes he will be able to take part in this one. Forward Lys Mousset was substituted with a knock on Wednesday, but should be involved.
Emiliano Martínez is expected to continue in net for Arsenal, with first-choice keeper Bernd Leno perhaps out for the rest of the season after a knee injury sustained in a challenge with Brighton’s Neal Maupay. David Luiz is available for selection again, having missed the last two games after being sent off in a nightmare appearance at Manchester City. Fellow defenders Calum Chambers and Pablo Mari will continue their injury-inflicted absences, as will midfielder Lucas Torreira and promising forward Gabriel Martinelli. Right-back Cédric Soares is yet to play for the club since joining from Southampton in January and remains a doubt.
Sheffield United have taken four points from Premier League meetings with Arsenal this season. The Monday night meeting in October at the Lane was settled by Mousset’s close-range finish, and a fine strike from John Fleck at the Emirates Stadium earned a 1-1 draw in January.
The clubs played out one of the most extraordinary ties in the FA Cup’s history at the Fifth Round stage in 1999. The Gunners won 2-1 at Highbury, but Marc Overmars’ winning goal was hugely controversial as Nwankwo Kanu failed to return possession to the Blades when they kicked the ball into touch to allow a player to receive treatment. However in light of the injustice, Arsenal offered a rematch, which was staged 10 days later and saw goals from Dennis Bergkamp and Overmars settle the tie 2-1 in their favour.
They also met in the 2003 semi-final at Old Trafford, where there was more controversy as Arsenal’s Freddie Ljungberg grabbed the game’s only goal, with United aggrieved at referee Graham Poll’s failure to award a foul earlier in the move and then his obstruction of Blades midfielder Michael Tonge.
The most recent FA Cup meeting came in the Fifth Round in 2005 as United held Arsenal to a 1-1 draw at Highbury and a 0-0 draw in the replay at Bramall Lane, only for there to be heartbreak as Arsène Wenger’s side triumphed 4-2 on penalties.
Sheffield United have beaten non-leaguers AFC Fylde and Championship outfits Millwall and Reading en route to the last eight, and last went this far when they reached the semi-finals as a League One side in 2013/14.
Arsenal have won the competition 13 times – more than any other club and most recently in 2016/17. They have seen off Leeds United, Bournemouth and Portsmouth this season.
United’s only defeat in their last seven matches at home was a narrow one to champions Manchester City – all those games coming prior to lockdown. For Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal, they had won only one of their previous 15 Premier League away games before collecting a welcome three points at Southampton on Thursday.
Historically the Steel City has not been a happy hunting ground for Arsenal, having won in only one of their last 13 visits to United or Wednesday. That includes the Blades winning the last two Premier League clashes at the Lane 1-0.
ONE TO WATCH
The headline player in the Arsenal line-up is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who has proved a shining light in a team which has underperformed for much of the season. He has scored 20 goals in all competitions this term, and netted an impressive 61 times in just 100 appearances for the club. However he is yet to register on the scoresheet since the restart of the campaign – a run he will be keen to end on Sunday.
This game kicks-off at 1pm, the first of three FA Cup ties on Sunday. It is live on BT Sport 1 and BT Sport Ultimate, coverage starting at 12:30pm.