Sheffield United's unbeaten run away from home comes to a controversial end at Manchester City
After 18 matches, 344 days and nine top-flight battles against some of the richest clubs in the business, Sheffield United’s long unbeaten run away from home came to an end at the home of the reigning Premier League champions.
But referee Chris Kavanagh and Stuart Attwell, overseeing this fixture in the VAR suite at Stockley Park, exerted greater influence over the final outcome than any of the star-studded names in Manchester City’s line-up; including goalscorers Sergio Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne.
Attwell made his presence felt when, with the contest still evenly poised, he ruled Lys Mousset had strayed into an offside position before converting a sumptuous John Fleck pass. Then it was Kavanagh’s turn to intervene, impeding the Scot as he prepared to receive possession and setting in motion the chain of events which saw Aguero break the deadlock.
With United posing more questions than they were being forced to answer themselves, Pep Guardiola admitted “it would have been very difficult to win” had Mousset’s effort been allowed to stand.
“Now I understand,” the City manager continued, “Even though I knew it before, why Sheffield are where they are in the table.”
But while Guardiola was relieved, Chris Wilder sounded thoroughly exasperated. Even though, when he began picking apart this controversial fixture, he tried his best to keep a smile painted across his face.
“Just press ‘play’ because I’ve talked about all this before,” the United manager said. “Do we want people drawing silly lines on things? Do we want people drawing blurred lines on stuff that no one can really understand? No. Not really. But that’s what we’ve got. And I don’t think anything I’ve got to say is going to make much of a difference.”
Although City produced the occasional moment of brilliance, United were the more creative force in the game when Mousset, recalled in attack alongside Callum Robinson, profited from Fleck’s perfectly weighted and flighted assist across the hosts’ rearguard.
The decision to disallow the Frenchman’s effort was questionable. And so, much to United’s frustration, was the one to allow Aguero’s opener to stand after Kavanagh had obstructed Fleck.
United, who had earlier seen Mousset and John Egan head wide, continued to press but fell further behind when De Bruyne wrong-footed Dean Henderson. Substitute Billy Sharp later struck the woodwork but United slipped to eighth after failing to discover a route back into the game.
It is the first time they have lost on their travels since January when, three months before securing promotion from the Championship, Wilder’s men succumbed to Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium.
“It’s been a long time,” Wilder said. “But when you lose, I’m not going to lie, it’s difficult to immediately find anything positive when you’re talking about a defeat.”
Manchester City: Bravo, Walker, Sterling (Jesus 88), Aguero (Foden 81), Zinchenko, Rodrigo, De Bruyne, Silva (Gundogan 63), Fernandinho, Mahrez, Garcia. Not used: Carson, Mendy, Cancelo, Otamendi.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham, Egan, O’Connell, Stevens, Baldock, Norwood, Fleck, Besic (McBurnie 76), Robinson (McGoldrick 60), Mousset. Not used: Verrips, L Freeman, Sharp, Jagielka, Osborn.
Referee: Chris Kavanagh (Manchester).