Sheffield United v Birmingham
Saturday August 7, 20:00
Sheff Utd aim for immediate bounce back
Having posted a ninth-place finish in the Premier League in 2019/20, Sheffield United succumbed to Second Season Syndrome last term. The Blades saw long-term boss Chris Wilder depart in March and the Bramall Lane outfit concluded the campaign rock-bottom with 23 points having suffered 29 defeats across their 38 league encounters.
To avoid a potential relegation hangover and engineer a quick return to the top-flight, the club recruited two-time promotion winner at this level, Slavisa Jokanovic, to take the reigns. The Serbian appears a smart appointment and is expected to implement an enjoyable, attack-minded approach that utilises a squad brimming with proven Championship quality.
Jokanovic has said he is satisfied with how the squad have responded to his fresh ideas this summer, whilst in-demand midfielder Sander Berge and goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale have been praised for their application. However, last weekend's final pre-season fixture against Norwich was cancelled due to COVID and the Blades could arrive a little undercooked.
Optimism around Birmingham
Birmingham have spent most of the previous seasons scrapping for Championship survival but there is a buoyant mood around the Second City ahead of the 2021/22 renewal. With highly-rated boss Lee Bowyer beginning his first full campaign in charge of Blues, supporters are optimistically eyeing-up a first top-half finish at this level since 2015/16.
Bowyer arrived at St Andrew's in mid-March with City just three points clear of third-bottom Rotherham, who had four games in-hand. But the former Blues' League Cup winner responded by taking 17 points from the club's next eight games, and were safe from the drop with two games to spare. Plans and preparation then immediately turned to 2021/22.
Birmingham will have seven new faces to choose from on Saturday night, and are expected to set-up in the three-at-the-back system that served the side so well under Bowyer last season. Ryan Woods should start in the middle with Tahith Chong potentially out-wide, although Chuks Aneke and Jordan Graham may need to settle for a place on the bench.
Sheffield United and Birmingham played out two Championship draws on the last occasion the duo crossed swords in 2018/19. Those stalemates extended the Blades' winless streak against Blues to five across all competitions ((W0-D3-L2), whilst United have now tabled just one triumph against City in the past nine head-to-head encounters (W1-D3-L5).
Sheffield United 1.9010/11 begin the campaign as third favourites in the ante-post markets and it's easy to see why Slavisa Jokanovic's team are rated highly. However, it could take time for the Blades to find their range and rhythm and odds-on quotes against a tricky Birmingham side at Bramall Lane make little appeal on the opening weekend of the season.
Birmingham 5.004/1 might be unable to match Sheffield United in terms of budget and on-field ability but the Blues have impressed in terms of their organisation and structure under Lee Bowyer's tutorship. The midfield and defence possess plenty of experience, bite and composure, whilst Lukas Jutkiewicz and Scott Hogan provide plenty of threat in attack.
Slavisa Jokanovic's appointment suggests Sheffield United will be taking a front-foot approach to life back in the second-tier. The Blades must transition their mind-set from plucky underdogs to consistent pre-match jollies with the Serbian eager to see his new team make the running in matches, dominating opponents with an expansive attacking system.
In contrast, Birmingham could look to conserve and contain, employing the counter-attack and exploiting set-piece opportunities. The Blues were successful in that regard during their relegation battle last term and a similar set-up would provide Sheff Utd with plenty to ponder. Either way, it makes a goals-based play difficult to get behind.
Over 2.5 Goals has been chalked up at a reasonable 2.265/4 but instead I prefer the prospect of Birmingham stifling the underprepared Blades.
Heading to the Asian Handicap market, we can support Blues with a +0.5 & +1.0 Asian Handicap start at 1.784/5. We'll earn a full-stakes pay-out should City avoid defeat and only lose half of our stake should Sheff Utd win by exactly one goal. The only way in which our whole stake is lost is if the hosts triumph by two goals or more on Saturday night.