If the Championship rankings had lulled them into a false sense of security, the size of the task Sheffield 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 £70m worth of talent in their starting eleven and named a former Barcelona player, together with a five-time Premier League title winner, on the substitutes bench.
It also underlined how, after winning promotion at the first time of asking, Chris Wilder has helped United 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 moral 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.
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 cursing when Benik Afobe directed a header tamely towards Dean Henderson. But, for the most part, his players fought a rearguard action until finally becoming less compliant after Clarke's finish. It was a display which betrayed not only the respect United now command from opponents but also the lack of confidence and conviction in City's ranks.
Wilder attempted to set a trap for Rowett when, speaking on the eve of the game, he suggested wholesale changes were being planned in United's bootroom. In the event, the 51-year-old and his staff resisted the temptation to tear apart the side responsible for lifting the hosts to second ahead, making only one instead. Clarke's inclusion in place of Billy Sharp represented an attempt to revitalise an attack which had visibly tired during the second-half of a narrow loss to Derby County three days earlier. It proved exactly the right call as, after spending over an hour softening up Ashley Williams, Clarke prodded home his first of the 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 with Kieron Freeman clipping a first time effort over the crossbar before Fleck saw a shot deflected behind
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 different plan in mind as Jack Butland, the England goalkeeper, took an age getting the ball back into play after the Scot's Howitzer. Still, United kept coming and would have taken an early lead but for Enda Stevens' failure to hit the target when Mark Duffy's pass ricocheted into his path. If the chance had fallen to McGoldrick or 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 of 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 brute force was responsible for carving United's next opportunity. Clarke rolled Williams midway through the
opening period before fending-off the centre-half who, grabbing at the United captain's shirt in a vain attempt to stall his progress, was fortunate not to concede a penalty. It was crude and possibly criminal but enough, as Clarke struggled to stay upright, to ensure Butland gathered the resulting low drive at the second attempt.
City benefited from two more acts of generosity during the dying embers of the half. The first again came from referee Gavin Ward, who refused to caution Berahino for a dive as Henderson raced off his line to smother a through ball before Clarke failed to connect with a Jack O'Connell cross. Any sort of connection would have broken the deadlock.
McGoldrick and James McClean traded chances after the interval and Duffy also went close before Clarke secured the breakthrough United's persistence deserved; bundling the ball across the line after Norwood had hit the woodwork.
But as just as United appeared to be closing in on the result their contribution warranted, Allen claimed the equaliser City's scarcely deserved.