How it took a moment of sheer brilliance from Manchester City to undo proud Sheffield United

Around four hours before kick-off, and five after the battle for control of Sheffield United took a potentially decisive twist, Manchester City’s team coach snaked into a near deserted Bramall Lane and drew-up alongside the Copthorne Hotel.

Wednesday, 22nd January 2020, 10:27 am

If the home fans hoped it was a signal the visitors were preparing to park the bus, they were sorely mistaken.

Starting elevens containing the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Kevin de Bruyne and Riyah Mahrez are not designed to defend. Even though Sergio Aguero was initially left to kick his expensively soled heels on the substitutes bench.

But United, as Chris Wilder had reminded 24 hours earlier, have not climbed to seventh by being compliant.

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Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus (right) has his penalty saved by Sheffield United goalkeeper Dean Henderson during the Premier League match at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. PA Photo.

Indeed, even though at one stage the contest threatened to turn into a duel between Dean Henderson and Pep Guardiola’s galactico stuffed attack, Oli McBurnie had been inches away from breaking the deadlock before Aguero did the job himself.

Games between two supposedly mismatched opponents are not supposed to hinge on such miniscule moments. It was to United’s credit that this one, against the reigning Premier League champions, did.

“I’ve got nothing but an enormous amount of pride for my team,” Wilder said, describing de Bruyne’s assist for Aguero’s finish as “simply amazing.”

“We went toe to toe with them and when those little opportunities arise, you’ve got to show a bit of quality. Unfortunately when they did, we just couldn’t quite manage that.”

Oliver McBurnie of Sheffield United lunges at the ball during the Premier League match at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. Picture date: 21st January 2020. Picture credit should read: James Wilson/Sportimage

Henderson was simply exceptional, thwarting Raheem Sterling, Nicolas Otamendi and clawing away a Gabriel Jesus penalty before frustrating the Brazilian once again.

Unfortunately for United, so too was de Bruyne. Even if it was only for five or so magical seconds.

“It is a difficult place to come, everybody knows it,” Guardiola reflected. “When they came to the Etihad three weeks ago, they had only lost one game away.

“They attack with a lot of people, they are incredible with the second balls and the strikers are always fighting.

Manchester City's Sergio Aguero scores his side's first goal of the game during the Premier League match at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. PA Photo. Picture date: Tuesday January 21, 2020. See PA story SOCCER Sheff Utd. Photo credit should read: Mike Egerton/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorised audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or "live" services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.

“The second half was a little more dynamic from us and finally the assist from Kevin gave us the victory.”

Dismissed as primitive by some pundits at the beginning of the season, United’s tactics have nevertheless proved sophisticated enough to seduce both Guardiola and his counterpart at Liverpool Jurgen Klopp.

Wilder had another trick up his sleeve for the visit of the reigning Premier League champions, with Mo Besic preferred to John Lundstram in midfield and Billy Sharp partnering McBurnie in attack.

Their partnership got off to an encouraging start when a delicate touch from the latter sent his captain darting forward before piercing City’s defence.

Manchester City's Sergio Aguero scores his side's first goal of the game during the Premier League match at Bramall Lane, Sheffield. PA Photo. Picture date: Tuesday January 21, 2020. See PA story SOCCER Sheff Utd. Photo credit should read: Mike Egerton/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorised audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or "live" services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.

But an anguished howl reverberated around the stadium when Sharp’s pass, thanks to a deflection off Fernandinho, flew just beyond John Fleck.

Bookended by periods of United pressure, City made their own predictably beguiling contribution towards an absorbing first-half. One of its most enjoyable features, for those old enough to remember when footballers could still make tackles, was the physical approach adopted by 22 players who also produced plenty of superb football.

With all three of United’s midfielders cautioned before referee Lee Mason brought it to a close, City sensed an opportunity to establish a stranglehold on the game.

They fact they failed, until Aguero pounced 18 minutes from time, owed nearly as much to the durability of United’s outfield performers as it did Henderson’s brilliance.

Thr 22-year-old, on loan from Manchester United, has excelled himself since helping Wilder’s squad win promotion last term.

Producing two superb blocks to deny Sterling and Otamendi, he then embellished his burgeoning reputation still further by parrying Jesus’ penalty, following Chris Basham’s challenge on Mahrez.

HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who earlier in the day discovered Kevin McCabe’s latest bid to appeal against his ownership of the club had failed, has apparently generated the funds to purchase its property assets and the Copthorne Hotel.

The clamour for him to find some more, to secure Henderson’s signature on a permanent basis, is growing with every single save.

Predictably, City dominated possession as they pressed, passed and probed.

Henderson smothered another attempt by Jesus, when he ghosted through the lines, but at the other end United were posing questions of their own.

Moments after being introduced, tasked with testing City’s rearguard by showcasing his explosive pace, Lys Mousset saw a backheel fly straight at Ederson following a delight interchange inside the box.

After McBurnie’s near miss - the centre-forward flinging himself at a low cross and only just failing to connect - de Bruyne produced the evening’s best piece of skill to create Aguero’s match-winner.

Finding himself in space towards the touchline, the Belgian assessed his options and calculated the angles whilst still in motion. The result was a pass, so perfectly weighted and flighted, that United’s defenders simply could not risk touching it as they desperately scrambled back.

Aguero, for the 21st time this season, did the rest.

“I believe Pep, his staff, his players and their fans will come away from here knowing it’s been difficult for them,” Wilder said. “Everyone did their best.”

Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham (C Robinson 77), Egan, O’Connell, Stevens, Baldock, Norwood, Fleck, Besic (Lundstram 77), Sharp (Mousset 60), McBurnie. Not used: Verrips, Jagielka, K Freeman, Osborn.

Manchester City: Ederson, Walker, Sterling (Silva 90), Jesus (Aguero 68), Zinchenko, Laporte (Garcia 77), Rodrigo, De Bruyne, Fernandinho, Mahrez, Otamendi. Not used: Bravo, Gundogan, Cancelo, Foden.

Referee: Lee Mason (Greater Manchester).

Attendance: 31,825.