Birmingham City 1-1 Sheffield United: Chris Wilder’s promotion-chasing side strike first but are held at St Andrews
Sometimes, despite its obsession with science, statistics and complex systems, football simply boils down to nerve.
Sheffield United find themselves in one of those moments now after being held to a draw by Birmingham City at St Andrew's last night.
Twenty-four hours after Leeds edged them out of the automatic promotion places with a win over Preston North End, Chris Wilder's side failed to climb back into second when Michael Morrison cancelled-out Enda Stevens' goal for the visitors.
The result leaves United a point behind their rivals from Elland Road with only five fixtures remaining. Having survived a test of their perseverance, they now face four more of their courage, steel and ability to withstand pressure beginning with Saturday's match against Millwall.
City might have spent much of the past 12 months in chaos off the pitch. But as the club's board of directors attempts to bring its finances under control, on it they are anything but.
Defensively disciplined and drilled to within an inch of their lives by manager Garry Monk, City proved every bit as stubborn as Wilder feared they might. And, with Che Adams and Lukas Jutkiewicz leading their attack, posed United and Dean Henderson in particular plenty of problems.
With Marcelo Bielsa's side losing here four days earlier, this was a frustrating but not devastating result for Wilder and his charges. Indeed, given the talent and experience Monk has at his disposal, the 51-year-old might eventually view it as a point gained rather than two dropped following Stevens' effort.
But with the margins for error now uncomfortably slim towards the top of the Championship, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that the battle to finish runners-up behind title-winners-elect Norwich will not be settled by tiny, seemingly inconsequential, details.
Although they started the evening in 17th place, a nine point deduction for breaching the English Football :League's Profit and Sustainability regulations means, even at this late stage, the rankings are not an accurate barometer of City's capabilities. It is something Wilder had been at pains to remind the travelling supporters and players alike before travelling to the Midlands and, within minutes, it became clear why. City, content to concede both territory and possession until an opportunity to burst forward presented itself, resisted the temptation to step out of position as United moved the ball around the pitch. Oliver Norwood teased them. John Fleck and Chris Basham adopted a much more physical approach. But it was not until just before the interval, when Stevens opened his account for the campaign, that United found the space to carve an opportunity of note.
In an attempt to upset City's choreography, United handed their former midfielder Mark Duffy license to roam across the pitch. The ploy ensured poor David Davis, who had clearly been tasked with the tracking the 33-year-old, never enjoyed a moment's peace. But United kept probing and Duffy kept persevering, finally escaping Davis' clutches five minutes before half-time. His pass, short but perfectly weighted, meant Stevens did not have to break stride before powering a vicious shot through Lee Camp. It marked the end of the wing-back's near 13 month search for a goal.
Unfortunately for United, City did not have wait anywhere near as long for an equaliser.
United were more enterprising than their opponents during the opening period but nearly fell behind in what would have been desperately unfortunate fashion midway through the first-half. Martin Cranie, recalled at the expense of Kieran Dowell, raced across to try and prevent Gary Gardner from delivering a cross. But a deflection off the defender sent Gardner's centre spiralling towards the top corner of Henderson's net rather than across the penalty box.
Scrambling across his line and flinging himself skywards, the goalkeeper managed to complete an impressive looking save which, given City's determination to suffocate United's creativity prevented them from being dragged even deeper into the war of attrition.
As the interval beckoned, City became more adventurous. But only slightly so. Harlee Dean sliced high over the crossbar after a scramble in front of Henderson before Morrison cancelled-out Stevens' opener. Connor Mahoney's corner was met by Gardner and, when United failed to clear their lines, the City captain was on hand to fire home.
But for Camp's reactions, David McGoldrick would have restored United's advantage at the beginning of the second period. The centre-forward was alert to the possibilities as he attempted to convert from close range at the near post, before his flick was turned away to safety.
Adams, previously of United, had been a peripheral figure for much of the contest before drawing another excellent save from Henderson soon after. Despite a bold double substitution during the closing stages, when Dowell and Gary Madine were introduced, Wilder's men could not find a winner but remain on Leeds' coat tails.
Birmingham City: Camp, Pederson, Colin, Mahoney (Jota 60), Adams, Jutkiewicz, Dean, Maghoma, G Gardner, Davis (C Gardner 81), Morrison. Not used: Trueman, Roberts, Vassell, Mrabti, Harding.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham, Egan, Cranie (Dowell 59), Stevens, Baldock, Norwood, Fleck, Duffy (Madine 59), Sharp, McGoldrick. Not used: Moore, Hogan, Coutts, Freeman, Stearman.
Referee: Darren Bond (Lancashire).