Talking Points | Wolves vs Sheff United

Molineux opens its doors for the first time in 2022 this weekend when Sheffield United visit in the Emirates FA Cup and has all the main Talking Points before Sunday’s cup tie.

#1 Bruno’s up for the cup

Bruno Lage has made clear his love of the FA Cup and its Portuguese equivalent. In Portugal, the Taca de Portugal is the oldest club cup competition, and in his 18 months at Benfica, Lage guided his team to a semi-final and final in consecutive seasons. Having taken over in 2019, the head coach joined at the quarter-final stage, where he defeated Vitoria de Guimaraes, before going out on away goals to Sporting in the semi-finals. The next season, his only full campaign in charge, Lage went one better, taking Benfica to the final, but they couldn’t get over the line, losing 2-1 to Porto. Can he take that final leap at Wolves? It’s a long journey but has to start somewhere.

Sunday won’t be Lage’s first experience of the FA Cup however, with the Portuguese spending three seasons in the competition as Carlos Carvalhal’s assistant. At Sheffield Wednesday, with promotion their aim, the pair didn’t get past the fourth round stage, but at Swansea City, it was a different story. The third round incidentally came at Molineux, when Wolves of the Championship took the Swans to a replay following a goalless draw. After a narrow win in the replay, Swansea went on to thrash Notts County 8-1 in another replay, before Carvalhal and Lage got one over on their former club Wednesday in the fifth round. Tottenham Hotspur eventually ended the run in the last eight, but that run is likely to have opened Lage’s eyes to the magic of the FA Cup.

#2 Tinkering vs momentum

Like in the Carabao Cup, this weekend Lage must decide if to offer minutes to other members of his squad, and if so, decide how many changes would not disrupt the rhythm created recently, with seven points taken from the last nine available in the Premier League. John Ruddy has played every cup game for the past four seasons, so will hope to stand between the sticks on Sunday, while Ki-Jana Hoever and Rayan Ait-Nouri are options to come in at wing-back. In defence, Lage’s options are limited following Romain Saiss’ departure to the Africa Cup of Nations, which leaves only Conor Coady and Maximilian Kilman as fit central defenders. Leander Dendoncker has deputised there before, and could come in in defence or midfield, while the returning Dion Sanderson has impressed in the Championship this season.

Further up the pitch, Adama Traore and Fabio Silva had an impact off the bench at Old Trafford, so may eye an opportunity on Sunday, while Ryan Giles is back in the mix too, having returned from Cardiff City earlier this week. Elsewhere, Toti Gomes and Hayao Kawabe have trained with the first-team this week, while the likes of Hugo Bueno, Luke Cundle and Bruno Jordao have been on the bench recently. We’ll find out at 1pm on Sunday when the teams are announced.

#3 Blades sharped for the new year

Sheffield United won’t want reminding of their last visit to Molineux back in April, when relegation to the Championship was confirmed following Willian Jose’s solitary goal for Wolves. In truth, the damage was done before that night in the West Midlands – the Blades had to play six further Premier League fixtures, which displays the depth of their plight. That ill feeling continued into this season too, despite the appointment of Slavisa Jokanovic, who won just six of his 19 Championship games in charge. With the Blades eight points adrift of the Play-Offs, the board turned to Paul Heckingbottom, who’d temporarily taken the reins at the back end of last season, including for that defeat at Molineux.

This time they put their trust in the former Barnsley manager and he’s responded since his appointment at the end of November. Although United have only played three times due to Covid postponements, they’ve won all three under Heckingbottom. Victories over Bristol City and Cardiff City, a game which saw Wolves loanee Morgan Gibbs-White score one and assist two, were crucial, but it was last time out against Fulham which was the most eye-catching of the wins. Despite the usually free-scoring leaders dominating the stats, the one that mattered was the scoreline – 1-0 to the Blades thanks to Iliman Ndiaye's stunning solo goal. At the time, the 20th December, that win moved United to within three points of the top six, but postponements have hit the Bramall Lane club more than most and that gap now stands at eight, with numerous games in hand to be played.

#4 The benefit of the loan system

One man we won’t see on the pitch on Sunday is Gibbs-White, but he’s enjoying some season on loan at Sheffield United. Having started the campaign at Molineux, and scored against Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup, the midfielder headed to Bramall Lane in search of more minutes at the end of August and won’t be regretting his decision. In his 16 Championship games so far, the 21-year-old has scored five and assisted four, and most pleasing for Wolves, has started all 16. In fact, the only game he’s missed was due to suspension following two bookings at Millwall, which Wolves will see as all part of the learning process. Postponements have, in fact, come at a good time for Gibbs-White, who picked up a knee injury against Fulham and is currently recovering.

The temporary move to the Blades is the second of its kind for Gibbs-White, who made six appearances on loan at Swansea City last season, and scored his first league goal there, but the move to Bramall Lane has been far more fruitful. He’s likely to be in attendance at Molineux on Sunday, as his parent club do battle with his loan club and will be itching to get back in action and aid United’s promotion push.