Dean Smith has his pre-match chat:
It’s a big boost to everybody. Twelve weeks ago this looked a very long way away. We’ve been itching to get out there. Speaking to Chris, his lads are itching to get out there as well. I think the fact that you’ll hear everything [will be most strange]. There’s got to be some self-drive out there today, because you lose that little bit of adrenaline the crowd can give you.
On the selection of Keinan Davis, the 22-year-old striker who makes his full Premier League debut today:
We’ve had a mini pre-season just like everybody else and I wanted to reward the players that have looked the brightest and the fittest. When the season was paused, confidence-wise we weren’t in a good place. We’ve had time now and opportunity to build that up, and all the players have deserved that shirt out there today.
The players are warming up. Villa have put banners over most of the lower-tier seats, at least in the three stands that will feature most often in TV coverage, but the rest is just empty. It looks like Manchester City, who play Arsenal later, have covered pretty much every seat with some kind of decoration.
Chris Wilder has had a chat. His side have a couple of injuries, including top scorer John Fleck, who scored both in a 2-0 win over Villa at home earlier in the season, who should be back for Sunday’s game at Newcastle. “We’re a competitive side and we compete in training,” Wilder says.
It’s a bit surreal but we’re getting on with it. We have done right through the process. We’re in the same situation as everybody else, we’re just looking forward to getting back to playing. I think it will suit some teams in terms of getting the best players back fit. We were in good momentum but we’ve got to pick that up. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. Now the ball rolls and it’s everything to play for. We’ve had a fabulous three-quarters of a season and we’re desperate to finish it off.
Sheffield United’s face masks are very much on brand:
Tonight’s line-ups have been announced, and here they are:
Aston Villa: Nyland, Konsa, Hause, Mings, Targett, Hourihane, Douglas Luiz, McGinn, El Ghazi, Davis, Grealish. Subs: Taylor, Nakamba, Trezeguet, Borja Baston, Samatta, Jota, Elmohamady, Reina, Vassilev.
Sheff Utd: Henderson, Basham, Egan, Stevens, Baldock, Berge, Lundstram, Norwood, Robinson, McBurnie, Sharp. Subs: Luke Freeman, Jagielka, McGoldrick, Kieron Freeman, Mousset, Osborn, Clarke, Moore, Rodwell.
Referee: Michael Oliver.
From the sport that brought you
… and also
… not to forget
… it is finally time for
Actual professional English league football!
After 100 days in the sporting desert we are about to enjoy a feast. Sure, a feast of largely and increasingly meaningless end-of-season matches, but let the quantity not be in doubt.
And there is no meaninglessness today. Aston Villa sit 19th with 10 games to play, but know a win would vault them into the giddy heights of 16th. Sheffield United are seventh, but would be fifth by bedtime should they pocket the three points here.
It seems crass in the context of a global pandemic to talk about survival in a mere sporting sense, but Villa’s ambition is to stay in the Premier League for another season and with some difficult fixtures to come a few instant points would certainly help. It seems equally crass given its cause to say that the break came at a good time for them, but they had lost their previous four league games and seemed to already be sliding down the slippery slope of sporting oblivion before being given an opportunity to reset, and to welcome John McGinn into their line-up after long-term ankleknack.
Meanwhile the amateur psychologist in me says that the Blades might have spent the last few months gazing with pride at the league table and planning for the next campaign, and with the wind ripped from their sails might struggle to regain the momentum that seemed set to carry them all the way to Europe. It would be understandable if they tailed off a little from here, but frankly it would also be unsurprising if Chris Wilder just kept producing more miracles from his magic hat.
All that, plus we get to marvel at an entirely empty Villa Park, ponder whether any fans will turn up to loiter outside soaking up the sound of faint and muffled oofs and thwacks floating from within, and boggle at whatever madcap innovations will be crowbarred into the stadium instead of them. At best it could be an absolute thriller, and at worst it will be mildly intriguing. Welcome everyone, I’ve missed you all.