Defeat at Leicester City a huge blow to lacklustre Sheffield United but not a fatal one in quest for Europe

Just behind the Lineker Stand, the blue, white and brick edifice which greets visitors to the King Power Stadium, sits a nondescript patch of land strewn with litter, weeds and the detritus of nights out on the town enjoyed by inhabitants of the student flats nearby.

Thursday, 16th July 2020, 9:14 pm
Updated Thursday, 16th July 2020, 9:14 pm
Sheffield United's manager Chris Wilder, centre, gives instructions to his players during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Sheffield United at the King Power Stadium, in Leicester, England, Thursday, July 16, 2020. (Cath Ivill/Pool via AP)

It was there, before Leicester City moved into their shiny new purpose built home nearly 20 years ago, where Sheffield United enjoyed one of the greatest days in their history - sealing promotion to the old First Division following a 5-2 win on that now unloved patch of waste ground; or Filbert Street as it used to be known.

That match, and the people who took part in it, are assured of their place in Bramall Lane folklore. But their predecessors, managed by a veteran of Dave Bassett’s legendary team, last night returned to the city intent on achieving something much, much bigger - delivering a place in Europe.

Chris Wilder, the person responsible for turning a side supposedly destined for relegation into serious contenders, has spent most of the past four months discovering innovative new ways of talking down their chances and dodging questions about the possibility. So much so that, before Premier League football emerged from the shadow of coronavirus, one suspected a career in politics might beckon when he finally waves goodbye to the dug-out.

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Sheffield United's Oli McBurnie in action against Leicester City. (David Davies/Pool via AP)

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Although this result dealt a blow to United’s hopes of reaching the continent next term, it was not a fatal one. City, who saw Ayoze Perez and substitute Demarai Gray score either side of the interval, are now assured of entry into at least the Europa League.

United remain eighth but only a couple of points behind sixth-placed Wolves; not that Wilder was in any mood to acknowledge as much afterwards.

“We’ve taken some huge steps forward over the last year or so, I thought we took one back out there tonight,” he said.

Sheffield United players react after Leicester's Demarai Gray scores his side's second goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Sheffield United at the King Power Stadium, in Leicester, England, Thursday, July 16, 2020. (Cath Ivill/Pool via AP)

United’s 36th assignment of the season proved to be a test of Wilder’s tactical nous rather than his ability to tie journalists in knots, having decided his men lacked the intensity to drag themselves back in following Perez’s opener.

Brendan Rodgers paid the visitors the compliment of changing City’s approach and, with Jamie Vardy and Harvey Barnes both reaping the benefits, could well be tempted to persevere as he attempts to nail down a place inside the top four.

Across the technical area, Wilder spent much of the evening deep in conversation with his assistant Alan Knill as they attempted to fathom how best to respond. United changed personnel. They changed shape. But, try as they might, they failed to change the flow of the contest with substitute Gray stretching City’s lead during the closing stages.

United had made a positive start, with David McGoldrick sweeping the ball over the crossbar after Oliver Norwood sent George Baldock scampering through. But it was tough going from that moment on.

It seems absurd, given the financial muscle of those around them in the table and their own lack of top-flight experience, that United travelled to the East Midlands knowing that a win - followed by ones of Everton and Southampton - would see them qualify for the EL regardless of results elsewhere. But ever since climbing out of the second tier, this is a squad which has punched consistently above its weight. Or has it, with the on-loan Dean Henderson viewed as one of England’s finest goalkeepers and Jack O’Connell and George Baldock also tipped to join John Egan, Enda Stevens, Sander Berge and others among United’s international ranks.

The match, however, proved to be a sobering experience. City, ditching their usual possession based game and electing to turn United instead, caused the visitors all manner of problems with their positioning and pace. Wilder, probably encouraged by the fact only Perez had scored, delivered his verdict in the shape of a triple half-time substitution. It did not have the desired effect and, when Gray deservedly stretched City’s advantage, he provided another.

“Their fight was better than ours,” Wilder said. “I think that’s the best way of putting it.”

Ben Osborn had expressed concerns beforehand that John Fleck’s return to fitness following injury would bring to an end his run in the starting eleven. The midfielder, a £1.5m signing from Nottingham Forest, has been one of Wilder’s most influential performers over the past few weeks - helping United add the names of Tottenham, Wolves and most recently Chelsea to their collection of scalps. Despite naming Fleck as his own player of the year ahead of kick-off, Osborn deservedly retained his place. But he spent the majority of the first-half chasing opponents and making blocks as City emerged as the dominant force of the first-half. Fleck was introduced thereafter.

The hosts’ movement and precision had already caused United problems by the time Perez pounced in the 30th minute. The Spaniard had already gone close, heading wide at the far post following, before calculating his angles perfectly and threading a low drive past Henderson’s outstretched palm. Nineteen year old Luke Thomas, the third youngest player to make their full Premier League debut for City, provided the assist.

Although O’Connell and John Egan both went close during quick-fire scrambles inside the hosts’ penalty area, the second-half continued in much the same vein as the first as the pace of Barnes and Vardy continued to cause problems. Indeed, were it not for the brilliance of Henderson, Barnes would surely have joined Perez on the scoresheet after the interval. Twice the 22-year-old found himself bearing down on goal and twice Henderson came to United’s rescue with his feet. Youri Tielemans sliced wide following Barnes’ second effort.

But Henderson was powerless to prevent Gray doubling City’s lead in the 79th minute; the former Birmingham City attacker drilling an angled shot just inside the far post soon after being introduced.

Leicester City: Schmeichel, Justin, Morgan, Evans, Tielemans, Vardy, Barnes (Gray 77), Perez (Choudhury 71), Ndidi, Bennett, Thomas. Not used: Ward, Iheanacho, James, Mendy, Praet, Johnson, Hirst.

Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham (Sharp 59), Egan, O’Connell, Stevens, Baldock, Norwood, Osborn (Fleck 46), Berge (Lundstram 46), McGoldrick (Mousset 46), McBurnie. Not used: Moore, Jagielka, K Freeman, Robinson, Zivkovic.

Referee: Michael Oliver (Northumberland).