The pre-match music was the same, former player Alan Birchenall welcomed them to the stadium and there was even a friendly face among the opposition ranks.
But once the sounds of Kasabian had finished reverberating around the stadium and this FA Cup tie got underway, Sheffield United were supposed to find themselves on dangerously unfamiliar territory.
The fact they lost, exiting the competition at the fifth round stage following Jamie Vardy’s second-half goal, will surprise no one; least of all their manager Chris Wilder who had acknowledged beforehand it would take a herculean effort to progress.
However, against a City team with over £200m worth of talent at its disposal, they departed, as City’s narrow margin of victory confirmed, with their pride and reputation intact.
“We’ve not gone through the back door,” Wilder said. “And that was important, even though we’re disappointed to lose. That attitude is something I’ve come to expect from out group. We created chances, three or four good ones in fact, but just couldn’t quite take then and against they quality they’ve got, you’ve got to.”
Initially, it seemed United’s greatest mistake was giving City, the former Premier League champions, a fright when James Wilson ghosted past Wes Morgan during the early exchanges. Footage of that remarkable campaign is still broadcast on the big screen during the countdown to kick-off. But, two years later, some of the aura has gone. Rather than doff their caps and meekly submit to the established order of things, United sensed vulnerability. They were correct although, after spending much of the first-half repelling the likes of Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and Demari Gray, it came in the shape of City’s determination to take ten touches when one would do.
“I thought we played well but were made to work hard,” Puyel admitted later. “The most important thing was we went through.”
There were, however, enough pockets of resistence to ensure City kept one eye on events at the other end of the pitch. The most notable, following Wilson’s darting run, came in the shape of an Enda Stevens shot which drew a wonderful block from Harry Maguire. The England defender, who made over 150 appearances for United at the beginning of his career, frequently champions his hometown club on social media. But Maguire’s generosity on Twitter did not extend to the King Power Stadium’s turf.
There was never any danger of Vardy, a lifelong Sheffield Wednesday supporter, passing-up the chance to damage United. So when Mahrez whipped a dangerous ball across their box, Maguire’s international colleague gleefully headed it back across goal and into the back of the net.
Mahrez, making his first start since refusing to train following the collapse of a deadline day move to Manchester City, continued to showcase the touch and poise which have convinced City to overlook his actions.
But United, who welcomed back David Brooks from illness after the interval, produced moments of quality too. One, soon after Vardy had broken the deadlock, appeared to have engineered an equaliser but Kasper Schmeichel somehow diverted George Baldock’s attempt around the post.
Wilson, who having grown-up at Manchester United is used to rubbing shoulder with expensive talent, was responsible for mounting the game’s first attack when, having weaved a path through City’s midfield, an exchange of passes with Daniel Lafferty nearly punched a hole in City’s defence.
Samir Carruthers, enjoying a rare opportunity to impress as Wilder was forced to rotate his squad, ensured the likes of Vicente Iborra and Gray were denied time and space during the early exchanges. But, given the wealth of options at Puyel’s disposal, it was inevitable City’s quality would eventually shine through. So, after initially being hustled and hassled into a series of uncharacteristic errors, it was no surprise when City began to stamp their authority on the match.
Mahrez, who name was greeted by a mixture of cheers and boos when it was announced over the tannoy before kick-off, helped them wrestle back the momentum with a delayed pass which not only fooled United but also most of his own team mates.Vardy, however, was on the Algerian’s wavelength and came within a whisker of diverting it beyond Jamal Blackman who later saved well from Wilfred Ndidi.
With Vardy shooting inches wide as City’s dominance grew, United began to retreat closer and closer towards their own penalty area. Wilder, arms folded and barking instructions from the touchline, was aware something had to change. It came in the shape of a subtle tactical shift which nearly paid an instant dividend as Stevens, having been ordered further upfield, drew a fine intervention from Maguire after being picked-out by Carruthers.
Vardy, peeling away from Chris Basham, finally broke United resistance midway through the second-half. But Baldock, combining well with Carruthers, thought he had restored parity after connecting cleanly with the midfielder’s centre only for Schmeichel to get a touch.
“To lose from one ball into the box is frustrating,” Wilder said. “Because we pushed 20 yards upfield second half and engaged them even more. Then again, it was a pass from Mahrez and a finish from Vardy. That’s not a bad combination is it?”
Leicester City: Schmeichel, Simpson, Chilwell, Morgan, Gray, Iheanacho, Vardy (Albrighton 83), Maguire, Iborra, Ndidi, Mahrez (James 90). Not used: Hamer, Silva, Dragovic, James, Fuchs, Diabate.
Sheffield United: Blackman, Baldock, Stevens, O’Connell, Basham, Lundstram, Donaldson, Wilson (Brooks 46), Wright (Evans 76), Lafferty, Carruthers (Duffy 76). Not used: Sharp, Stearman, Heneghan, Eastwood.
Referee: Lee Mason (Lancashire).
Star Man: Jack O’Connell