Aston Villa 3 Sheffield United 3: Blades left stunned as three goals inside the final 10 minutes prevent them from climbing to the top of the Championship
Dean Smith's assessment of the Championship title race beforehand confirmed suspicions, despite spending the majority of the season inside the play-off positions, that Sheffield United are still viewed as underdogs to reach the Premier League next term.
"They're going to come here hoping to push towards the top two," Aston Villa's manager wrote in his pre-match programme notes, seemingly unaware a win would lift the visitors to the summit of the table. "We know that they've got a considerable attacking threat but we have to remember that so do we."
It was not intended as a slight. Indeed, there is a school of thought that Chris Wilder probably prefers his team to go about its work in the shadows rather than the glare of the spotlight.
But that will not ease the disappointment of seeing United, three goals to the good following Billy Sharp's hat-trick and seemingly destined to climb above leaders Norwich City, throw away what should have been an unassailable advantage during the final 10 minutes of the game.
"I just never saw that coming," Wilder said, acknowledging individual errors had cost United dear. "It's difficult to take when you don't come away with what you think you deserve. It was a really good performance. Yes, it hurts. But that's what I'll focus on."
There was a moment, midway through the first-half, which summed-up perfectly the difference between these two teams until United's late capitulation ensured they remained in third.
Already trailing to Sharp's close-range finish, Villa sensed an equaliser when Tammy Abraham evaded Enda Stevens and threatened to bear down on United's area. But while the centre-forward dithered and three quarters of the stadium held its breath, defender Jack O'Connell acted decisively; snuffing out the danger with a purpose and conviction Villa, as strange as it sounds, lacked for the most part.
Allied with tactical maturity and impressive match craft, it proved to be an irresistible combination. Certainly one Smith and his players, until Tyrone Mings and Abraham laid the foundations for their comeback, were unable to fathom out. By the time substitute Andre Green completed Villa's great escape, United's minds appeared utterly scrambled.
"Let's take the first-half," Smith said, as his team ended the night in eighth. "They were better than us and we gave them a head start. They're a very good team, they're very good players, but we kept on trying to dig it out."
The introductions of Kieran Dowell and Gary Madine, two of the three loan signings he made during last month's transfer window, highlighted the strength in depth now at Wilder's disposal. Twenty-two games ago, before Villa were embarrassed 4-1 at Bramall Lane, it would have been unthinkable for the likes of Mark Duffy and David McGoldrick to be left on the bench for a fixture of this magnitude. But it proved to be a perceptive call, with Madine instrumental in the moves which saw United build a two goal lead before Dowell claimed an assist for Sharp's third.
Predictably it was Sharp, now the leading marksman in the division, who broke the deadlock following an Oliver Norwood corner.
Villa had shown glimpses of their potential during the opening skirmishes, as the visitors got to grips with over £20m worth of attacking talent. But after first Dowell and then George Baldock had gone close - testing Lovre Kalinic with a shot the Croatian did well to smother - Sharp pounced following a well-worked set-piece.
Although Norwood's delivery was impressive, so too was Madine's movement as he peeled away from Mile Jedinak before, unmarked, heading the ball back across the six yard box. Sharp stretched out a leg to turn it home, despite Abraham's best efforts to scramble clear. Dowell, taking up a position near the penalty spot, did well to prevent Madine from being impeded.
Villa's response came in the shape of a speculative attempt from captain Alan Hutton, which Dean Henderson was able to track above the crossbar. It was pretty tame stuff, given the scale of their investment in recent seasons. And soon after the re-start, United ensured the opposition's uninspiring display did not go unpunished.
Once again, Madine was the architect; forcing Kalinic to parry when the goalkeeper sent Dowell's shot spiralling up nto the air and away to what he thought was safety. And once again, Sharp applied the coup-de-grace before completing his second hat-trick of the campaign when Dowell's centre took a deflection off Mings.
Villa's supporters thought the contest was over and began streaming for the exits. It was difficult to disagree, even when the on-loan defender headed home with nine minutes of normal time remaining. But when Abraham reduced the deficit even further, the whole dynamic if the fixture had changed. Indeed, with United growing careless, there was a sense of inevitability about the final outcome before Green's equaliser in added time.
"It’s mistakes that have cost us,” Wilder said. “No doubt about it. The important thing now is to rectify those, make sure they don’t happen again, and then keep our chins up and bounce back.”