Sheffield United: Analysing The Blades' match amical against Stade de Reims
Sixty three years after facing Real Madrid in the European Cup final, Stade de Reims are still wondering what might have been.
Narrowly beaten in a seven goal thriller, with the legendary Alfredo Di Stéfano setting Los Merengues on the path to greatness, France's representatives continued to seduce the purists with their attractive brand of football. But, even though success followed at domestic level, this provincial club from the Grand Est region proved unable to translate their talent into continental silverware.
Sheffield United have experienced plenty of sliding doors moments themselves, with their last appearance in the Premier League among the most notable. What would have happened, say, if Kevin Kilbane's free-kick had not struck Phil Jagielka's arm during a final day shoot-out against Wigan? Or Danny Webber's second-half shot not struck the woodwork as Neil Warnock's side searched in vain the equaliser which would have delivered survival?
So perhaps it was fitting, 13 seasons later, that United decided the Stade Auguste Delaune should be the place where they played their final warm-up fixture before making a long-overdue return to top-flight football.
Chris Wilder has spent all summer telling anyone who cared to listen that his club must not let this latest opportunity pass them by. It is a message which has clearly resonated with its board of directors, who have sanctioned a flurry of big money signings since last term's promotion from the Championship. And although David Guion's side proved too hot for United to handle, Wilder insisted they will enter Saturday's match against AFC Bournemouth in both excellent shape and the right frame of mind.
"I told them we don't like losing and it's not something we plan to get used to but that I was pleased with a lot of what they'd done," Wilder said, after chairing an impromptu team meeting on the edge of the centre circle following the final whistle. "Yes, there were things we weren't happy with. Yes, there are things we clearly need to work on.
"But the boys are together. They fight for one another. And that, more than anything else, makes me positive for the future not matter what division we're about to go in."
Reims no longer have players of Just Fontaine's calibre at their disposal. Greats such as Raymond Coppa and Roger Piantoni are now distant memories. But, as Wilder had reminded when the contest was arranged, they do possess a team capable of beating Paris St Germain, Marseille and Lyon en route to an eighth placed finish in Ligue 1 last term. The fluidity and movement which picked apart that trio was again in evidence here. But, also Wilder also pointed out, there were mitigating factors behind United's defeat. Including the fact they had only arrived in the country a few hours before kick-off. That probably went a long way towards explaining why, after taking the lead through Callum Robinson, two lapses in contration helped turn the tide back in Reims' favour as, after Alaixys Romao's equaliser, Remi Oudin and Xavier Chavalerin both profited from defensive errors.
"The final game, before the real stuff starts, is always the hardest in my experience," Wilder said, offering another reason why, despite their early promise, United waned as the evening wore on. "No matter what you tell them, it's always going to be in the back of a player's mind 'Don't get injured. Don't get injured.' I think that's only natural."
"Listen, they're a good team," he continued. "Look at some of the scalps they've taken. If you don't do enough with the ball when you've got it, because you won't see it quite as much when you move up in levels, then you'll come a bit of a cropper. But, and I can't stress this enough, I was really happy overall."
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Despite the scoreline, United had no shortage of positive things to discuss when they flew back across the Channel later that night. Robinson, on target for the fourth time since leaving Preston North End last month, produced another breathless performance capped by an expertly taken goal. Oli McBurnie, United's new record signing, showed flashes of the brilliance which convinced them to pay Swansea City £20m to acuire his services after entering the fray as a second-half substitute. The turn of pace which created an opening for fellow substitute Kieron Freeman during the closing stages was a joy to behold.
There was also a run-out for Ravel Morrison too, with the former Manchester United midfielder, as he works his way back to full fitness, also producing the type of delightful little cameos which suggest he will have a major role to play over the coming nine months.
"Oli showed what he's about," Wilder said. "You saw those little bits from him, even though he's not really got to know any of the lads yet, that tell you why he's such an exciting talent. Ravel did well in there too. We changed things around a bit and, even with that in mind, I was really pleased with our shape. I thought that looked really good."
"The other pleasing thing," Wilder added, "Is that we've come through pre-season with no injuries. We've got a clean bill of health and that's really pleasing. It shows the good work the boys and the staff have put in."
United, who left Jack O'Connell and Lys Mousset at home as a precautionary measure due to minor fitness issues, took the lead when Robinson, who has presented an almost irresistible case for a start at The Vitality Stadium, volleyed home a cross from Enda Stevens.
But when Reims' began to discover their rhythm, Romao prodded home from close range after Boulaye Dia had been denied by John Egan's scrambling challenge.
Oudin, who had earlier seen a shot palmed away by Dean Henderson, pounced on a routine ball over the top before firing home and, when United's rearguard lost concentration again, Chavalerin's angled cross sailed through their backline before sneaking inside the far post.
Robinson could have reduced the deficit soon after but for once, after meeting Chris Basham's centre-misjudged his angles. Then, Morrison was responsible for releasing McBurnie before Freeman, darting forward down the other flank, saw an effort blocked after meeting his new team's pass.
"To be honest, although we were pleased to come here, I think everyone, myself included, is just looking forward to getting going now," Wilder said. "We're all looking forward to playing the proper stuff. For points."
Stade de Reims: Rajkovic, Abdelhamid, Chavalerin, Dia (Konan 59), Dingome (Mbuku 88), Disasi, Doumbia, Foket, Kamara (Mbemba 77), Oudin (Suk 84), Romao (Sissoko 88). Not used: Costa, Lemaitre.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Baldock (K Freeman 77), Stevens (Jagielka 77), Fleck, Basham, Lundstram (L Freeman 66), Robinson (Sharp 66), Egan, Norwood (Morrison 77), McGoldrick (McBurnie 46), Bryan (Osborn 46). Not used: Moore, Stearman.