But for two sumptuous finishes from a prodigiously talented Dane, Sheffield United could have spent Saturday afternoon preparing for a cup final against Chelsea rather than trip to Crawley Town.
Bizarrely this League One fixture, which saw a team harbouring genuine aspirations of reaching the Championship next season meet another languishing in the relegation zone, nearly proved as chastening an experience as the one which potentially awaited Nigel Clough’s side at Wembley Stadium.
United, who remain fifth in the table with 14 matches left to play, were dominant to such an extent they spent nearly the entire contest camped on the edge of the opposition’s box. However, on one of the rare occasions Crawley managed to free themselves from the stranglehold, the visitors’ vulnerability at dead-ball situations allowed Richard Wood to pounce before Marc McNulty’s late penalty restored parity.
“It was a little bit like a training drill at times out there,” Paul Coutts, the United midfielder, said. “Attack versus defence. How we’ve not picked up the three points I don’t know. But we’ll take the fact we didn’t lose either as a positive, look to kick on and keep that run going.”
United, composed in possession and applying almost relentless pressure, will regard this as an opportunity missed.
However a match which stretched their unbeaten run in League One competition to six games also exposed the strength of character which Clough, speaking ahead of tomorrow’s game against Peterborough, believes could yet overhaul the nine-point gap separating them from the automatic promotion places.
“When they’re sitting back as they were, you could find yourselves on the end of a 1-0 defeat,” Clough said. “We didn’t and that’s a sign of improvement, as is the fact we controlled the game.
“Yes, we’re frustrated. Sometimes you nick a point when you’ve played c**p and you’re happy. But we know that should have been three. It’s just all about grinding results from now on.”
Coutts, whose precise passing and spatial awareness helped keep Crawley planted firmly on the back foot, echoed his manager’s opinion while also highlighting the wisdom they can call upon in high-stress situations. A valuable weapon should United, who would be ranked third based on results since the end of the transfer window, are forced to take the play-off route.
“We’ve got a lot of experience out there,” Coutts continued. “We’ve mentioned that in the dressing room and we know the job.
“That’s one of the things which means we always believe in ourselves no matter what and gives us the confidence to overcome challenges. That and the quality that’s out on the pitch too.”
Nevertheless, United’s fragility at set-pieces is becoming a cause for concern. Anthony Wordsworth’s delivery was nowhere near as impressive as the strike from Christian Eriksen which enabled Tottenham Hotspur to seize control of their Capital One Cup semi-final against Clough’s charges two months ago. But it was good enough to present Wood, making his home debut, with the chance to bundle beyond Iain Turner. United, despite over two goals per game of late, have not kept a clean sheet away from home since November 15.
“It was disappointing because the gaffer had reminded us plenty of times beforehand that set-pieces were probably Crawley’s biggest strength,” Coutts said. “We gave them a cheap one and then conceded from it.
“Momentum is important though, especially in our division, and if we keep it going then we’ll end up there or there abouts.”
Results are all important at the business end of the campaign. But, when the frustration subsides, United can reflect on a performance which, if replicated over the coming nine weeks, should put them in the top-two mix.
John Brayford and Ryan Flynn combined to cause Crawley, who slip to 23rd, all manner of problems along the flanks while Coutts, albeit in more subtle fashion, insitigated a series of promising moves. Chris Basham, reverting to centre-half when Terry Kennedy succumbed to a knee injury - “He should be okay,” Clough predicted. “It probably just needs some rest” - had an effort ruled out for offside during the early skirmishes before Wood, on loan from Rotherham, produced a superb block to deny Michael Doyle.
“Yes, our decision-making could have been a little better better when it came to the final ball,” Clough acknowledged. “But we also didn’t get the breaks in front of goal and, as awkward as that is, sometimes that just happens.
“We were trying to win all the way through, right until the very end. Wherever we go, we are going there and trying to win.”
“We wanted more and we deserved more but at least it keeps the momentum going and, right now, that’s important because strange things can happen at this time of the year.”
Brayford had also seen a low shot saved by Lewis Price and Bob Harris dragged an angled drive wide when Wood netted from close range. But when Matt Done, yet to taste defeat in a United jersey, was felled by Ryan Dickson after Doyle had helped on Turner’s punt forward, substitute McNulty converted from the penalty spot to claim his 12th of the season and second in as many outings.
United have been beaten only twice when the young Scot has scored and they nearly snatched the win their contribution warranted when Lewis Young flung himself in front of a Murphy piledriver.
“We always feels as if we’re in the game and we’re looking a threat going forward,” Coutts said. “It was always going to be a difficult afternoon because they were putting the lives on the line and we gave them something to hang on to by not getting the early goal.
“But we dominated them and played well.”
CRAWLEY TOWN: Price 6, Dickson 6, Bradley 6, Edwards** 6, McLeod 6, Young, Fowler*6, Tomlin 6, Wordsworth 7, Pogba**6, Wood 7. Substitutes: Jensen, Smith*(60) 6, Morgan, Anderson, Bawling**(80), O’Connor, Ward**(90).
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Turner 6, Harris 7, Brayford 8, Basham 7, Flynn**8, Doyle 8, Murphy 8, Done 7, Coutts 8, McEveley 7, Kennedy*6. Substitutes: McNulty**(73) 7, Willis, Davies, Reed, Freeman*(34) 7, Adams, Calvert-Lewin.
MANAGER’S VIEW - Nigel Clough: “We dominated at times but didn’t quite get a break in the box. We should have done better in certain situations. We had enough play and enough chances today to win the game.”
MANAGER’S VIEW - Dean Saunders: “On reflection you would’ve taken a point before the game but the way we’ve been playing we’re expecting to win. Looking at it, we’ve come a long way and now we’re expected to beat a team like Sheffield United.”
HERO: The partnership between John Brayford and Ryan Flynn caused Crawley Town all manner of problems. Indeed, Brayford twice forced Lewis Price to make smart reaction saves after powering beyond his teammate on the overlap.
KEY MOMENT: Sheffield United’s enjoyed nearly 70 per cent of the possion during the first half and finished with a figure of 62. Had they scored first, rather than conceding from another set-piece, then they would almost certainly have run out emphatic winners.
VIEWPOINT: Dean Saunders’ assertion that Crawley Town are now “expected to beat a team like Sheffield United” was as bizarre as the fact the visitors were forced to settle for only a point after dominating this one-sided contest. The former Wales international would have taken this result beforehand, and even more so at half-time.
REF WATCH: Charles Breakspear (Surrey). Crawley Town had five players booked including Ryan Dickson who was fortunate to escape with a yellow when he felled Matt Done. Anthony Wordsworth, Lewis Young, Gavin Tomlin and Izale McLeod joined him in the referee’s notebook.