James Shield's Match Analysis: Sheffield United are forced to settle for a point but score a moral victory with their approach against Stoke City
If the Championship rankings had lulled them into a false sense of security, the size of the task SheffieldÂ United were facing became clear when the teams were announced.
Stoke City, despite beginning the evening in the lower reaches of the table, included nearly Â£70m worth ofÂ talent in their starting eleven and named a former Barcelona player, together with a five-time Premier LeagueÂ title winner, on the substitutes bench.
It also underlined how, after winning promotion at the first time of asking, Chris Wilder has helped UnitedÂ punch above their financial weight. They were on the verge of once again reminding that transfer fees are no barometer of talent when Joe Allen, following Leon Clarke's opener, prevented them from regaining pole position in the promotion race.
Although they claimed a moralÂ victory, Wilder's reaction at the final whistle confirmed he regarded this as a case of two points dropped. More enterprising and inventive than City, who could scarcely believe their luck, the United manager watched his team out-think and out-play the visitors for long periods but fail to translate their superiority into a match-winning advantage.Â
David McGoldrick's movement was excellent and John Fleck a beacon of energy and aggression in midfield. Still, despite the huge strides forward they have taken since returning to the second tier, United have yet to master the art of killing off opponents. It is something, as they prepare for Saturday's meeting with Wigan Athletic, they will spend the next 72 hours attempting to perfect on the training pitch at Shirecliffe. But the knowledge United should have won, combined with the character and quality of his players' work, prompted a clearly frustrated Wilder to maintain 'we're on the right track.'
'I'm proud of the boys and what they produced,' he continued. 'If they (Stoke) are honest, they'll admit they dodged a bullet.'
From his vantage point on the gantry, Gary Rowett watched City deliver a performance which, despite Allen's late intervention, did little justice to the talent at their disposal.
Wilder's opposite number, serving a touchline ban for foul and abusive language, will have been cursingÂ when Benik Afobe directed a header tamely towards Dean Henderson. But, for the most part, his playersÂ fought a rearguard action until finally becoming less compliant after Clarke's finish. It was a display whichÂ betrayed not only the respect United now command from opponents but also the lack of confidence andÂ conviction in City's ranks.
Wilder attempted to set a trap for Rowett when, speaking on the eve of the game, he suggested wholesaleÂ changes were being planned in United's bootroom. In the event, the 51-year-old and his staff resisted theÂ temptation to tear apart the side responsible for lifting the hosts to second ahead, making only one instead.Â Clarke's inclusion in place of Billy Sharp represented an attempt to revitalise an attack which had visiblyÂ tired during the second-half of a narrow loss to Derby County three days earlier. It proved exactly the rightÂ call as, after spending over an hour softening up Ashley Williams, Clarke prodded home his first of theÂ season from close range after reacting first when Oliver Norwood's free-kick rebounded back off a post.
Predictably, given their manager's preference for high-octane football, United burst out of the blocks withÂ Kieron Freeman clipping a first time effort over the crossbar before Fleck saw a shot deflected behindÂ
for a corner following a trademark driving run.
But while United were attempting to force the pace, it quickly became apparent that City had a differentÂ plan in mind as Jack Butland, the England goalkeeper, took an age getting the ball back into play after theÂ Scot's Howitzer. Still, United kept coming and would have taken an early lead but for Enda Stevens' failureÂ to hit the target when Mark Duffy's pass ricocheted into his path. If the chance had fallen to McGoldrick orÂ Clarke, positioned just to the defender's left, it would almost certainly have been converted.
Stevens redeemed himself by forcing Cuco Martina to concede a corner which led to another spell ofÂ United pressure but both Chris Basham and McGoldrick were crowded out as they shaped to shoot.
Despite Duffy's trickery and McGoldrick's intelligent movement, a display of good old fashioned bruteÂ force was responsible for carving United's next opportunity. Clarke rolled Williams midway through theÂ
opening period before fending-off the centre-half who, grabbing at the United captain's shirt in a vainÂ attempt to stall his progress, was fortunate not to concede a penalty. It was crude and possibly criminal butÂ enough, as Clarke struggled to stay upright, to ensure Butland gathered the resulting low drive at theÂ second attempt.Â
City benefited from two more acts of generosity during the dying embers of the half. The first again cameÂ from referee Gavin Ward, who refused to caution Berahino for a dive as Henderson raced off his line toÂ smother a through ball before Clarke failed to connect with a Jack O'Connell cross. Any sort of connectionÂ would have broken the deadlock.
McGoldrick and James McClean traded chances after the interval and Duffy also went close before ClarkeÂ secured the breakthrough United's persistence deserved; bundling the ball across the line after NorwoodÂ had hit the woodwork.
But as just as United appeared to be closing in on the result their contribution warranted, Allen claimed theÂ equaliser City's scarcely deserved.'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹'‹