Aaron Ramsdale's heroics, one big missed chance and yet more heartbreak: The story of Sheffield United's defeat by Liverpool
The mission, which Sheffield United accepted, always seemed impossible.
How do you thwart a strikeforce which scores more times than a Love Island contestant without all three of your first choice centre-halves?
Throw a number of other challenges into the mix, including a debilitating catalogue of injuries, and it would hardly be a stretch to describe this meeting with Liverpool as the greatest test Chris Wilder’s side has faced since stepping into the Premier League.
It was one, until Curtis Jones fired home soon after the interval, they appeared confident they could pass; albeit largely thanks in no small part to the brilliance of Aaron Ramsdale between the posts. But with Roberto Firmino adding another just past the hour, United were instead left to contemplate yet another defeat and - now 15 points adrift of safety with only 12 matches remaining - marking time until their relegation from the top-flight is confirmed.
THE BIG DIFFERENCE
Jurgen Klopp’s team might not be the well-oiled machine which cruised to the title last season, making the journey eastwards having lost four of their last five games. But they are still a Ferrari to United’s Ford Escort, with the front end of their chassis remaining capable of turning heads.
Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Firmino have now scored 77 Premier League goals between them since the beginning of last season. United’s combined total stands at 54. Which is why, when a VAR review revealed Trent Alexander-Arnold had just kept the ball in play before crossing for Jones to finish, you always suspected their hopes had begun to slip away despite a commendable and characterful performance.
RAFA AND RAMSDALE
Forty-eight hours before kick-off, and knowing none of those on the treatment table had a chance of stepping off, Wilder had arrived at Friday’s pre-match media briefing armed with an A4 sheet of paper which detailed the full extent of United’s selection crisis The scene which duly followed was like a Rafael Bentitez tribute act. But instead of the ‘facts’ so beloved of Klopp’s famous predecessor, the 53-year-old used his notes as a prompt to ensure he didn’t miss anyone’s name off the casualty list he read out to journalists.
“Jayden Bogle, three weeks, Jack Robinson is also out,” Wilder said, jabbing a finger on the desk in front of him to add to the dramatic effect. “Sander Berge? Out. Jack Rodwell? Out. Oh, and then of course there’s John, Jack and Bash.”
In the end, United were able to cobble together a starting eleven which looked strong enough on paper. In practice, it also turned out to be more competitive than either Wilder and Klopp probably suspected - with the latter celebrating Firmino’s effort wildly on the touchline.
But United were indebted to Ramsdale for ensuring Liverpool were not already out of sight by the time the Brazilian saw his shot take a deflection off Kean Bryan and spiral beyond the United youngster.
Klopp, who earlier in the season had chucked several hand grenades in Wilder’s direction over the issue of top-flight substitutes, was probably overcome with schadenfreude as he listened to his one time bosom buddy turned bete noire scroll through United’s roster of absentees. Not least because, although Wilder blames their predicament purely on bad fortune, Klopp had predicted fitness issues were inevitable because of the condensed fixture schedule.
Although they crossed the Pennines missing numerous key performers themselves, Virgil van Dijk and Jordan Henderson being chief among them, Wilder’s sympathy will have been limited. Such is the wealth of talent at the German’s disposal, he was still able to select a pretty formidable squad while Ben Davies, previously one of Wilder’s leading transfer targets, missed out altogether. Likewise goalkeeper Alisson Becker, due to a family bereavement.
His replacement, Adrian, made two important saves. But Ramsdale was exceptional at the other end of the pitch; producing superb blocks to deny Firmino, Salah and Alexander-Arnold as Liverpool used their pace to test United’s cobbled together rearguard. Oliver Burke’s entrance, as a second-half substitute, presented Klopp’s defenders with a similar challenge.
SOURCES OF ENCOURAGEMENT
With problems at Bramall Lane mounting and one foot already in the Championship, United were in need of some encouragement as they prepared to face a squad of players David McGoldrick had described as “robots” earlier in the week. It came in the shape of a bizarre statistic which revealed, despite entering the contest searching for only their fourth win of the campaign, Wilder’s men were actually above Liverpool in the 2021 form table. Klopp’s men had made the journey eastwards hoping to avoid a fifth straight domestic defeat. In fact, having lost six of their last nine outings in the competition, Liverpool have been beaten more times this year than in their previous 100 top-flight outings.
Although the statistics were encouraging, United needed something tangible to cling to during the opening stages of the contest. It came in the shape of two chances for McGoldrick, forcing Adrian to save after meeting an Oliver Norwood set piece before seeing the Spaniard palm away his deflected shot.
Towards the end of the first-half, with Ramsdale’s Lev Yashin impersonation already in full swing, United actually thought they had taken the lead when Ozan Kabak prodded the ball into his own bet before being rescued by an offside flag against Oli McBurnie.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Starting his second match in succession, McBurnie justified his selection by ensuring he was a constant irritant to Liverpool’s backline. Intriguingly, crucially if United return to this level, he also appears to have become more streetwise too; teasing opponents into making unnecessary fouls when there was no obvious route to goal. But McBurnie’s game still has blemishes, as revealed when he nodded Oliver Norwood’s centre wide soon after Jones’ finish. United should have been celebrating an equaliser. Instead, for the umpteenth time this term, they found themselves rueing a missed opportunity. Firmino claimed Liverpool’s second soon afterwards.