TWO of League One’s most fancied heavyweights stepped into the ring at the Ricoh Arena last night but neither Coventry City nor Sheffield United could land a decisive blow.
However, although it is far too early to start making grand predictions about who will emerge as the main contenders in the battle for the Championship, United appear the better equipped to mount a concerted push despite requiring a late finish from Nick Blackman to secure a point.
Kevin McDonald, surely the division’s most accomplished midfielder, constantly demanded possession and instigated a series of promising moves.
A defence breached only 51 times en-route to May’s play-off final, looked calm and assured until Kevin Malaga’s controversially disallowed effort prompted a second-half City revival.
But United’s display also exposed the weaknesses Danny Wilson must address if they are to fulfil their potential.
Despite coming under the cosh for long spells, City’s Joe Murphy was seldom called into action before Stephen Elliott punished the visitors’ profligacy in emphatic style.
United’s manager, constantly barking orders from the touchline, cut an increasingly frustrated figure as his charges’ failure to produce a killer pass saw numerous promising openings go to waste.
This was by no means a mauling in the Midlands.
But it was a reminder that United must develop a ruthless streak or risk suffering more anxious evenings against inferior but industrious opponents.
City took a calculated risk when they handed Andy Thorn the task of steering the club through arguably the most turbulent period in its 129-year history.
Fortunately for a board of directors grappling with those familiar footballing problems of dwindling revenues and unsustainable costs, the former Wimbledon defender’s convivial demeanour owes nothing to his membership of the infamous Crazy Gang.
Thorn’s team, however, contains several characters who could hold their own with the likes of Vinnie Jones and Dennis Wise.
Reece Brown was a towering if not always assured figure at the back while Elliott, previously of Manchester City and Sunderland, was at his abrasive best throughout.
Nevertheless, it was United who forged the first opportunity of note when John Cofie created enough space to deliver a dangerous eighth minute cross which came within a whisker of being prodded home by Blackman.
The two youngsters, whose partnership could hold the key to the visitors’ hopes of securing automatic promotion, wasted no time in prising apart City’s rearguard again only for Cofie’s shot to be deflected wide.
Wilson, who had earlier sprung from his seat in the technical area when Mark Howard and Neill Collins combined to thwart City’s Cody McDonald, had recalled Matt Hill following injury at Marcus Williams’ expense.
But the vastly experienced full-back, making his first appearance since signing a permanent contract earlier this summer, was forced to walk a disciplinary tight rope throughout after being rightly booked for a clumsy challenge moments before Cofie’s intervention.
Fortunately for Hill, United quickly wrestled control with only Richard Woods’ goal line clearance preventing Kevin McDonald from edging United into an 11th minute lead and Harry Maguire heading wide from Stephen Quinn’s corner. However Hill, who later found himself on the receiving end of an equally agricultural tackle from Elliott, was required to stall Cody McDonald’s progress following a City counter.
Blackman, whose arrival from Blackburn Rovers has lent a physical presence to Wilson’s attack, had another near miss midway through the opening period when the Irishman’s centre flew inches beyond his forehead.
Wilson had repeated his call for United to pose more of a threat from deep lying positions before kick-off and David McAllister, whose exploits against Shrewsbury Town three days earlier had been rewarded with another starting role, nearly obliged following a neat interchange involving Blackman and the influential McDonald.
Another recent recruit - Tony McMahon - warmed Murphy’s gloves with a looping 35th minute set-piece as United’s grip tightened.
City, whose tendency to hit a hopeful pass incurred the wrath of a sparse home crowd, improved after the break but again found themselves under pressure when McDonald picked out McAllister.
The United youngster’s shot flew beyond Murphy’s upright and Elliott produced a 63rd minute sucker punch by latching onto the goalkeeper’s punt forward and powering home into the roof of the helpless Howard’s net.
Cody McDonald, who claimed the assist, seemed intent on trying to control the clearance rather than flick it into his team mate’s path.
But having earlier seen Malaga denied what at first glance appeared a legitimate opener - McDonald apparently whacking clear only after the Frenchman’s header had crossed the line - Thorn will argue City were due their slice of good fortune.
Likewise United who, having controlled proceedings for long periods, deservedly levelled when Blackman connected with substitute Shaun Miller’s cross with only six minutes remaining.
COVENTRY CITY: Murphy 6, Hussey 6, Malaga 6, Baker 6 (McSheffrey 88), C McDonald 6, Jennings 6, Elliott 6 (Ball 84), Kilbane 6, Barton 6, Wood 7, Brown 6. Not used: Dunn, O’Donvan, Edjenguele, Willis, Daniels.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 6, Maguire 6, Hill 7, Doyle 6, Blackman 6, K McDonald 7, Collins 6, McAllister 6, Cofie 6 (Miller 61), Quinn 7, McMahon 7. Not used: Long, Flynn, Harriott, Philliskirk, Ironside, Williams.
Cautions: Hill (6), Elliott (17), Barton (52); red cards: none