Football: FA Cup Semi-Finals: Wednesday have edge for derby drama: Sheffield United hope to stand logic on its head at Wembley as Arsenal look to Wright for the way forward

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IN JANUARY, after Sheffield United had come from 2-0 down to draw at home with Burnley in the third round, Alan Cork resolved not to shave until the Blades were out of the FA Cup. The balding Cork could now pass for Fidel Castro, and his manager, Dave Bassett, jokes that his head is on upside down.

The image has become peculiarly apposite, for United will stand logic on its head if they defeat Sheffield Wednesday at Wembley today to reach their first final since 1936. On that occasion they lost 1-0 to Arsenal, who by coincidence contest the second semi-final with Tottenham Hotspur tomorrow at the same venue.

Logic, however, rarely has much to do with cup football, let alone derby matches, and the weekend's dramatic potential is immense. United's captain, Brian Gayle, has even suggested that, after these little local difficulties, the final will be an anticlimax. He might wish to revise that judgement after today, but the point has some merit.

Seldom, if ever, has the penultimate stage of the competition so overshadowed the final permutations, with the decision to stage both ties at Wembley merely fuelling the fervour.

Arsenal and Spurs may be less intense about their game, having been through it all before two years ago when Spurs won 3-1 there to proceed to the final. But in Sheffield, where Wednesday and United played only the odd testimonial in the 11 years until 1991, their collision is seen as the city's biggest-ever match.

For both clubs, and especially the 68,000 supporters heading south, defeat does not bear contemplating. Mention of the 'Boxing Day Massacre' of 1979, when the Owls won 4-0, still sparks gloating and grimaces in the respective camps - and that was only a Third Division game.

The hard part, for both Bassett and Wednesday's Trevor Francis, may therefore be ensuring that fear of losing does not override the desire to win. In terms of big-match know- how, a Wednesday line-up bristling with internationals have a clear edge, though Cork is the only man in either squad with an FA Cup winners' medal.

The match in which he earned it - Wimbledon's victory over Liverpool - shows the kind of upset possible on a one-off occasion. Indeed, what United lack in experience they may compensate for with the resilience of youth and sheer hunger. Their run to the last four suggests that such factors are as important to them as they were to the Dons of '88.

In five of their six games United, amazingly the only Premier League club not to have played at Wembley since World War II, came from behind. They also tend to raise their game against the purer footballing sides, having beaten Manchester United in round five, not to mention doing a double over Wednesday last season.

Their surprising derby ascendancy is attributed by many Unitedites to the greater number of Sheffielders in their team (four to none). Whether this will have the same significance at Wembley must be doubtful. United have pockets of quality - Alan Kelly in goal, Glyn Hodges in midfield, Brian Deane up front - but Wednesday have all-round class.

The surface is likely to suit the wiles of Chris Waddle and John Sheridan better; no wonder Francis was so anxious to avoid Elland Road. Provided that the fit-again Paul Warhurst is strong enough to offer adequate support to Mark Bright in attack, Wednesday should win - but perhaps by a whisker, if Cork will pardon the expression.

United can take heart from history; when they last won the Cup, in 1925, Wednesday were among their victims. The precedent to which Spurs will look is more recent, although there is no Paul Gascoigne or Gary Lineker to torment Arsenal as on the day when 'and David Seaman will be very disappointed about that' became a 'there are some people on the pitch' in north London.

The outcome this time may hinge on how Gary Mabbutt and Neil Ruddock, the backbone of a side whose youthfulness reflects the financial crisis Spurs endured, handle Ian Wright. When he is subdued, Arsenal struggle, and the sapping effects of his mauling in Izmir might make their task easier.

Wright may well be the one man afield with the explosive quality Gazza brought to their last semi-final, but Spurs look to have more potential match-winners. Nick Barmby, presumably having recovered from his trip to Australia, should be refreshed as he resumes alongside Teddy Sheringham; and Darren Anderton can draw on his experience with Portsmouth against Liverpool a year ago.

Spurs certainly have the talent to repeat their triumph; the only question mark concerns temperament. A Wednesday-Spurs final would be a spectacle to savour - as well as avoiding having the same teams in both FA and Coca-Cola Cup finals - but it promises to be a very close shave.

Joe Lovejoy on

Tony Adams,

Football Diary,

Team news, page 50,

Terry Venables profile,

page 14

(Photograph omitted)

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