ON paper, last night’s contest appeared as big a mismatch as David Haye versus Audley Harrison.
Cardiff City, one of the most dangerous heavyweights in the Championship division, against a Sheffield United side which has punched well below its weight all season.
What actually transpired was far from the brutal mauling many feared with goals from Craig Bellamy and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas proving enough to maintain the visitors’ challenge for a top -two place.
It was, though, mind-numbingly predictable.
United enjoyed plenty of possession, particularly after the break, but failed to fashion anywhere near the number of openings required to suggest they can defy the odds and drag themselves out of trouble.
With Crystal Palace drawing with Leicester, Micky Adams’ side are now eight points adrift of safety with only five fixtures remaining.
Once again, it was impossible to fault United’s determination or endeavour despite the prospect of imminent relegation.
However, the lively Bjorn Riise apart, they lacked the craft to truly trouble their opponents.
A mature performance from teenage debutant Harry Maguire, who impressed after replacing the injured Joe Mattock, provided one of the few slivers of encouragement for United’s staff.
If any member of the 18,230 crowd which descended upon Bramall Lane yesterday evening was still perplexed by United’s predicament then a quick glance at the opposition should have been enough to dispel their doubts.
Adams is the sixth person to take charge of the South Yorkshire club since its brief flirtation with the Premier League in 2006/07 while a small army of players have been employed by the 49-year-old and his gaggle of predecessors in a vain attempt to replicate Neil Warnock’s achievement.
Cardiff, by contrast, have been a model of consistency with Dave Jones, who watched impassively as Danny Webber’s clinical finish effectively sealed United’s promotion on that sunny April afternoon in the Welsh capital, remaining at the helm and large swathes of the squad beaten in last term’s play-off final handed the opportunity to right that Wembley wrong.
Bellamy’s presence served to remind that not all of Cardiff’s success can be attributed to prudence and sound planning.
But while Adams, who kept faith with the starting 11 which faced Middlesbrough at the weekend, has struggled to reverse United’s fortunes, Jones travelled north unbeaten in four and confident of ending his team’s long exile from top-flight competition.
Bellamy, whose arrival from Manchester City has caused considerable discomfort among Cardiff’s rivals, drew a fine save from Steve Simonsen before forcing Neill Collins to intervene as the visitors looked to seize control.
Peter Whittingham and Chris Burke also tested United’s resolve during the early exchanges.
But in Riise, United possess an exciting loan ranger of their own and the Norwegian stroked the ball past Stephen Bywater after 10 minutes only to be adjudged offside. Bellamy, whose ego is dwarfed only by his wage packet, wrestled back the spotlight by scoring for the ninth time in Cardiff colours with a looping shot which flew into the back of the net after deflecting off a United defender.
Simonsen, powerless to prevent the Wales international breaking the deadlock, denied him a second with another excellent block soon after while Jay Bothroyd’s appeals for a penalty failed to impress referee Michael Oliver following a collision with Nyron Nosworthy.
A succession of crosses into the Cardiff box - from Riise and Stephen Quinn in particular - were either gathered by Bywater or simply went begging with Mattock’s speculative drive - blocked by Seyi Olifinjana - their only other noteworthy effort during an otherwise muted first half.
Adams introduced Nick Montgomery at the start of the second with Maguire also entering the fray after Mattock limped off with an injury.
The youngster immediately made his presence felt by out-muscling Bothroyd as the pair contested an aerial ball deep inside United territory while at the other end of the pitch Matthew Lowton, who had earlier lost his bearings under pressure from Cardiff substitute Darcy Blake, finally forced Bywater into action with a textbook header from Quinn’s corner.
Emmanuel-Thomas, on for Stephen McPhail, wrecked any hope of a comeback by converting Burke’s piercing centre.
UNITED: Simonsen, Nosworthy (Montgomery 46), Henderson (Bent 78), Doyle, Bogdanovic, Mattock (Maguire 48), Lowry, Collins. Quinn, Lowton, Riise. Not used: Aksalu, Tonne, Kozluk, McAllister.
CARDIFF: Bywater, McNaughton, Naylor (Blake 46), Whittingham, Bothroyd, McPhail (Emmanuel-Thomas 48), Burke, Keinan, P Quinn, Olifinjana, Bellamy. Not used: Rae, Gyepes, Koumas, Heaton, Matthews.
Goals: Bellamy (21), Emmanuel-Thomas (70).
Referee: M Oliver (Northumberland).
Booking: Lowton (65).