At 10 matches, Sheffield United were a feel-good side full of pluck and dogged determination. At 20 matches, the questions about their ability to stay in the top flight went away. Nearing their 30th match, the Blades look to continue their fight for a European spot Saturday when they face Newcastle United at St James' Park.
The match is expected to be played without fans as a closed-stadium policy is expected to be enacted, with media reports stating this will be the case throughout all rungs of English football as part of a government response to combat the coronavirus. It is also believed ticket-holders will be allowed to stream coverage of matches at their house and that no pubs will broadcast games to help avoid congregations of people.
Sheffield United (11-10-7) enter this contest seventh on 43 points but only two back of Manchester United for fifth. While that would guarantee a Europa League berth most seasons, it may carry a bigger prize of Champions League qualification should the Court of Arbitration for Sport uphold UEFA's two-year ban on European play for Manchester City for financial irregularities.
Chris Wilder's side are unbeaten in their last six (5-1-0) across all competitions as they dealt fellow new boys - and likely one-season wonders Norwich City - a 1-0 defeat last Saturday. Billy Sharp's bullet header on 36 minutes on a cross from John Lundstram was enough to separate the sides as the Blades continued to work the fine edges of Premier League life like a savvy fighter.
The win was the sixth in league play by the slender 1-0 scoreline, the hallmark of a defence that trails only Liverpool (21) in goals conceded with 25. That has been in large part thanks to 22-year-old keeper and Manchester United loanee Dean Henderson, who is likely to get a recall to the England squad for upcoming friendlies versus Italy and Denmark.
"It says a lot about him, going out, learning the hostile business of pro football and what it brings. Whether that be in the early days and into the Championship with us or the Premier League," Wilder told The Star about Henderson, who has 11 clean sheets overall.
"He's edgy and I think we need to have that edge about us, myself and the players. But I don't mind that because he wants to drive his career forward. And that's only a good thing as far as I'm concerned, it's what you want to see."
Sheffield have also been a difficult out on the road with just two losses in 15 matches across all competitions outside Bramall Lane (6-7-2) - with the losses coming at Anfield to champions-elect Liverpool and reigning two-time champions Manchester City.
If the closed stadium policy does go into effect as expected, it would be the rare reprieve for Newcastle in the sense the home supporters would not have the opportunity to barrack owner Mike Ashley. The Toons (9-8-12) are in good shape with nine matches remaining, entering this contest 13th on 35 points and eight clear of the drop.
They are also trying for their first three-match winning streak of the campaign, following up a fifth-round FA Cup victory with a 1-0 triumph at Southampton last Saturday. Allan Saint-Maximin fired Newcastle to three points with a goal on 79 minutes, ending a barren spell of 439 minutes in league play dating back to Florian Lejeune's stoppage-time equaliser at Everton on Jan. 21.
Getting to the 40-point mark that all but guarantees safety, though, could prove a challenge in the short term as No. 1 Martin Dubravka has been ruled out for at least the rest of the month with a knee injury suffered in last weekend's win. It will be the first league match Dubravka will miss since arriving in the 2018 January transfer window, but he offered confidence understudy Karl Darlow won't fluff his lines between the sticks.
"They show it on the pitch - Karl has shown it in the cup games - so I'm definitely confident and comfortable with whichever of the keepers will be in goal," Dubravka told Newcastle's official website, referring to Darlow and fellow backup Rob Elliot. "I'm going to support them because they provide fantastic support for me as well.
"It means a lot because even Karl came to me the next day and asked how it was. You don't have that connection always, and I've said many times, I'm very grateful for that. Obviously this is a chance for them now but it's good because we are still not safe and I'm quite sure that they will show their ability and show their levels."
Newcastle are going for a double over Sheffield after posting a 2-0 victory at Bramall Lane in December when Saint-Maximin and Jonjo Shelvey scored on either side of halftime. Including a double in the Championship in 2009-10, the Magpies have won the last four between the clubs.