One careless moment costs combative Sheffield United dear against Chelsea
Of all the matches Sheffield United have played since returning to the top-flight, it is their meetings with Chelsea which highlight most vividly both the financial inequalities of Premier League football and the size of the challenge Chris Wilder’s team face as they attempt to survive at the highest level.
The visitors, owned by an oligarch and so laden with talent they could name a World Cup winner on the bench, versus a squad containing three veterans of the side which paraded the League One title at Bramall Lane following a win over Chesterfield less than four years ago.
It is to United’s credit that they pushed the six-time champions of England so close - briefly drawing level when Antonio Rudiger scored a calamitous own goal following Mason Mount’s opener - before Jorginho sealed Chelsea’s victory from the penalty spot.
United, who remain bottom of the table and now 12 points adrift of safety, also saw substitute Billy Sharp force Edouard Mendy to take evasive action in added time, scrambling clear when their captain and talisman tried his luck with an audacious overhead kick. Thomas Tuchel, Wilder’s counterpart, breathed a sigh of relief following a result which saw Chelsea climb to fifth.
Not for the first time since returning to action in September, United were left to reflect on a missed opportunity to claim one of the competition’s most prized scalps. In a sense, this was their campaign in microcosm.
BIG MOMENTS ONCE AGAIN
Wilder has spoken about the importance of“big moments” so often this season that he confessed before kick-off he is starting to bore himself. Two presented themselves during the early skirmishes of this contest and although neither was taken, the fact both fell to United reflected positively on their performance. They also set the tone for a first-half display which saw the hosts cause Tuchel’s men far more problems than the German, electing to break up the eleven which had beaten Tottenham Hotspur three days earlier, clearly suspected would be the case. Taking charge of Chelsea for only the fourth time since replacing Frank Lampard at the helm, Tuchel had cut a frustrated and tormented figure on the touchline until irrepressible Mount calmed his nerves.
The players had barely broken sweat - if indeed that was even possible on a bitterly cold night in South Yorkshire - when Oli McBurnie, one of four changes Wilder had made himself, sent another, Oli Burke, darting through on goal. Burke did well to shake off his marker but hit the side netting.
Ten minutes later, with Tuchel growing agitated at how the fixture was unfolding, United thought they had been awarded a penalty when Ben Chilwell upended Chris Basham inside the penalty box. But a VAR review revealed Basham, who later made his presence felt at the opposite end of the pitch to clear a Timo Werner effort, had strayed offside as he raced towards Kean Bryan’s centre.
A POINTED MESSAGE
A football man to his core, Wilder is willing to dabble in politics whenever an opportunity presents itself. So perhaps, only 48 hours after voicing his displeasure at the board of directors’ refusal to sanction any new arrivals during the recent transfer window, it was no surprise to see him select only six senior substitutes rather than make up the numbers with academy graduates. It was a reminder, as injuries continue to cause problems behind the scenes, that the manager and his coaching staff feel they need help - no matter which division the club finds itself in next term.
With the on-loan Ethan Ampadu ineligible for selection against his parent club, Bryan was asked to deputise for the Wales international on the left hand side of United’s rearguard. On loan himself last season, albeit at Bolton Wanderers, Bryan produced an excellent block to smother Mount’s first attempt of the contest. But like the rest of Wilder’s defenders, he was nowhere to be seen when the England midfielder broke the deadlock during the dying embers of the first-half. Bryan blotted an otherwise commendable shift by selling Aaron Ramsdale short with the back pass which saw Jorginho restore Chelsea’s lead only four minutes after Rudiger’s error.
CHARACTER BUT CARELESS
Despite being in post for less than a month, Tuchel has already seen enough off Mount to predict the youngster is destined for the very top of the game. His belief in the 22-year-old’s potential will only have grown after watching him produce a clinical finish to break the deadlock just before the interval.
The sight of Mount caressing a first-time shot beyond Ramsdale after Chilwell and Werner had combined was a bitter blow for United. But they showed durability of their own to force themselves back on level terms; Rudiger prodding the ball into his own net, under pressure from Burke, following McBurnie pass.
Constantly bellowing orders from his vantage point on the edge of the technical area, Wilder must have felt the lucky break was no more than United deserved. He was right too, with Chelsea benefiting from a slice of good fortune of their own before Jorginho calmed Tuchel’s nerves. Unfortunately for Bryan, who has exceeded all expectations since being granted an opportunity, it was his mistake which set in motion the chain of events which ended with the Italian scoring for the second time in as many games; misjudging his pass back to Ramsdale and leaving the goalkeeper with little option but to bring Jorginho down. When the ball eventually went out of play, referee Kevin Friend awarded the penalty after reviewing the incident.
SOME REVEALING CHANGES
Although it will be of little consolation to United, they should take heart from the fact Tuchel had clearly fathomed they still posed enough of a threat to introduce N’Golo Kante during the closing stages. John Fleck drew a save from Mendy after weaving his way through a crowd while Rhian Brewster saw two attempts blocked during a late scramble.