The Steel City Derby returns on Monday night for one of its most significant instalments in recent years, with potential ramifications for both the race for automatic promotion and the race for the play-offs.
Leeds’ emphatic 4-0 win against West Brom on Friday night has put pressure on Sheffield United to collect three points at Hillsborough, while another slip up from Bristol City has left the door open for the final place in the top six, and Sheffield Wednesday can’t be ruled out just yet.
The balance of power has certainly shifted in Sheffield recently. Two years ago, Wednesday were competing in the Championship play-offs for a second successive season, United were still in League One. But Sheffield United’s return to England’s second tier has come at a time of resurgence for the Blades, and stagnation for their fiercest rivals.
Sheffield Wednesday passed up two excellent chances of promotion but were ultimately outclassed by Hull in the 2016 play-off final and lost out to Huddersfield on penalties a year later, following one of the dullest two-legged affairs in history.
Last season was a reality check for the Owls, however, and a 15th place finish allowed Sheffield United to finish above them for the first time since 2011.
In their first season back in the Championship, United finished five places, and 12 points, ahead of Wednesday. They have widened that gap even further this season, with 11 places and 17 points separating the teams in the league and a gulf in class is beginning to emerge between them.
For too long now, both clubs have languished in English football’s lower divisions and the Premier League hasn’t seen a club from Sheffield in 12 years.
A Premier League mainstay in the 1990s, Sheffield Wednesday haven’t tasted top flight football since their relegation in the Year 2000, while Sheffield United have managed just one Premier League appearance this century.
Sheffield United have an excellent chance to change that this season, however. The Blades have exceeded expectations to still find themselves in the hunt for automatic promotion as the season reaches its climax. A win on Monday will see them leapfrog Leeds back into second place with just 11 games remaining.
United have also responded incredibly well after they threw away a three-goal lead at Villa Park with just eight minutes remaining at the beginning of February.
It would have been easy to press the implode button after such a collapse, but United have since won three games on the spin, including difficult fixtures against West Brom and Middlesbrough, without conceding a goal. They have simply refused to go away all season and, no matter the result on Monday night, will be in the promotion shake-up at the business end of the season.
For Sheffield Wednesday, they have the chance to kick-start a play-off push with a win on Monday night. Bristol City’s draw with Preston has brought them closer to the chasing pack and there is every chance they could be caught in the race for the top-six.
Victory will move Wednesday just four points off Bristol and with Derby, Nottingham Forest and Birmingham all suffering defeats on Saturday, they can make up real ground on the teams above them. Wednesday are undefeated in seven league games and with a new manager at the helm, who is to say that they can’t string a run of wins together and challenge for the top-six.
A win over their locals rivals on Monday 7.45pm would be the ideal way to launch that late surge for the play-offs, and hurt Sheffield United’s automatic promotion hopes in the process. A defeat, on the other hand, will signal the death knell of their faint play-off hopes and force them to watch on as the Blades attempt to reach the promised land. There is a lot more than bragging rights at stake.