Ryan Flynn’s late stunner saw Sheffield United progress into the fourth round of the FA Cup, with a 2-1 win over Premier League side Aston Villa at Villa Park.
If Sheffield United were under any illusions about the size of the task facing them in the Midlands, they disappeared the moment Paul Lambert delivered his team sheet to the visitors’ dressing room.
The Villa manager might have questioned the FA Cup’s significance earlier in the week. But the sight of Benteke spearheading the Premier League club’s attack suggested he was still deadly serious about reaching the fourth round.
Nevertheless, it was Tonev who made the first real inroads towards Long’s goal with a driving run which had McMahon backtracking towards the by-line before delivering a cross which the United goalkeeper comfortably cut-out.
Clough’s charges had acquitted themselves well during the early exchanges with both Murphy and McGinn testing Villa’s defensive resolve. But then, with nine minutes gone, Benteke announced his arrival with a deft touch which, but for an assistant referee’s flag, would have sent the Bulgarian dancing through.
Collins was then cautioned for dissent but the Scot, after McMahon had dealt well with Benteke towards the corner flag, regathered his composure in time to prevent Tonev from powering into space.
Clough had used his pre-match press conference to remind that, despite Villa’s stature, United also possess plenty of quality within their ranks. And, in the 19th minute, so it proved when MURPHY fired them into the lead.
Baxter, who started his career at Everton, released the winger before he ghosted past Lowton on his way across the box and dispatched a low shot into the back of Steer’s net. A deflection off Westwood caught the Villa goalkeeper cold but it was a slice of good fortune a fine move deserved.
The breakthrough sent self-belief coarsing through United veins and, although Maguire was called upon to thwart to lively Tonev, a long exchange of passes prompted choruses of ‘Ole’ from the strong travelling support.
Villa rediscovered their rhythm during the closing stages of the half but, with Collins, Maguire, Hill and McMahon maintaining their discpline, struggled to create a clear cut chance until Benteke headed wastefully wide after climbing to meet Albrighton’s centre.
Make no mistake, United had not fought a rearguard action before the break and the howls of derision emanating from the home sections of the ground will have been music to Clough’s ears as the two teams trooped down the tunnel.
When they emerged, it was the visitors who made the brighter start with Steer parrying Flynn’s angled effort behind for a 47th minute corner before gathering another shot from the winger 60 seconds later. Long dealt well with Albrighton’s looping shot which, despite being unleashed from near the touchline, had threatened to sneak beneath the United crossbar before Lowton launched a counter-attack which Flynn did well to snuff out.
Flynn then came close to beating Steer but Lowton was on hand to hack clear when the goalkeeper fumbled the winger’s shot.
Clough, flanked by his assistants Andy Garner and Chris Morgan in the technical area, could feel rightly proud of his players as Villa were reduced to chipping hopeful balls either into the United box or into touch.
Nevertheless, as Doyle’s ‘tap on the head’ gesture to his team mates during a break in play proved, the match remained in the balance and Villa substitute Helenius dragged Lambert’s men level with a quarter-of-an-hour remaining. A cool finish saw him stroke the ball home after Weimann’s assist but Porter should have restored United’s advantage straight from kick-off after being sent through by Baxter’s excellent pass.
The Liverpudlian’s influence was now growing and, soon after that miss, he split Villa’s rearguard with another perfectly-weighted chip which allowed Flynn to flash inches wide.
However, another period of Villa pressure was the cue for Clough to send on Coady with Baxter making way. And with nine minutes remaining, FLYNN, restored United’s lead with an excellent individual effort. The former Falkirk winger, despite the attention of two Villa markers, engineered himself enough space on the edge of Steer’s area to send a powerful drive flying into the roof of his net before wheeling away to celebrate with the United followers massed behind that goal.
United negotiated the four added minutes with a minimum of fuss, to claim a wholly-deserved win.