Sheffield United 2 Blackburn Rovers 1 - Much-changed Blades make it into Carabao Cup third round
The swathes of empty seats inside Bramall Lane confirmed the Carabao Cup, for all but its richest or most ardent members, is not viewed as a priority by Sheffield United's army of fans.
But for those on display at Bramall Lane last night, for what proved a messy second round tie against Blackburn Rovers, it was potentially the most important match of the season. After all, as Chris Wilder had admitted in his pre-match programme notes, before unveiling an experimental line-up, it was an opportunity to remind "the coaching staff and myself" what they can do. Or, in the case of the new arrivals like Mo Besic and Ravel Morrison, demonstrate why United have invested in their services.
In truth, although goals from Richard Stearman and Ollie Norwood secured his team's progress, Wilder is unlikely to spend too much time reviewing the DVD of this fixture. There were some encouraging individual contributions, with Simon Moore in particular catching the eye by saving Adam Amstrong's early penalty. But in terms of a spectacle, it was pretty miserable fayre. Even more so when Rovers' Bradley Dack, one of the most intelligent and effective performers on show, was mysteriously withdrawn by his manager Tony Mowbray. The introduction of Lys Mousset, making his debut following a £10m move from AFC Bournemouth, at least injected greater urgency into United's play. Likewise Sam Gallagher's header midway through the second-half, which Rovers will feel was the very least their efforts deserved; Armstrong redeeming himself by sweeping a peach of a cross into United's area.
Mowbray's frustration got the better of him in added time when he was sent-off following an exchange of views with the officials. It was not difficult to sympathise with the 55-year-old, who appeared to be angered by Morrison's tackle on substitute Lewis Travis. On another day, the midfielder would probably have walked although Rovers were also guilty of some poor challenges as the contest finally reached something approaching boiling point. That will not have bothered Wilder one bit, given he plans to use the competition as a vehicle to help keep his squad as a whole sharp and battle-hardened for Premier League action.
Predictably, with Norwood the only surviving member of the starting eleven which had faced Leicester City three days earlier, United's passing was awry during the opening exchanges. There were touches, from both the Northern Ireland international and his fellow Morrison, which highlighted the depth of quality within the home club's ranks. But with clear lines of communication yet to be established, it was Rovers who looked the more coherent if not talented side.
It was a combination of their coherence and United's carelessness which presented Armstrong with the chance to open the scoring from the penalty spot before either team had broken sweat. Richard Stearman was responsible for the foul on Bradley Dack, which referee Geoff Eltringham punished. But with Phil Jagielka being caught slightly out of position, his fellow centre-half was faced with an unenviable choice: Either allow Rovers' star man a clear sight of goal or risk bringing him down and gamble. In the end, with Moore smothering Armstrong's effort and then clearing from Richie Smallwood, Stearman made exactly the right call.
He did the same again midway through the first period, heading United in front after Jayson Leutwiler had made a dreadful hash of dealing with Norwood's corner. But Rovers, despite becoming less of a threat as the evening wore on, still carried enough to allow Joe Rothwell to go close moments before Stearman's effort. Moore, impressing with both his agility and focus, was relieved when the midfielder's strike flew just wide.
In truth, despite extending their advantage when Norwood converted moments before the interval, United must have entered the break wondering how they had established such a tight grip on the game. An injury to Kean Bryan had been just one of several things for Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill to ponder during the break. And none of them, the goals or missed spot-kick apart, had been particularly good.
The pattern continued throughout the second period, until Mousset's introduction injected greater purpose into United's work. Although Oli McBurnie and Billy Sharp worked hard, both will have one eye on appearing against Chelsea this weekend. After missing much of pre-season due to a conditioning issue. Mousset knew he was unlikely to start in west London no matter what he did against the visitors from Lancashire. But he provided a glimpse of the power and pace he will bring to United's attack by producing several driving runs which put Rovers on the back foot.
Despite being far from their best, United did not find themselves under any serious pressure until Gallagher reduced the deficit. The former Southampton striker, a one-time target for Wilder, directed Armstrong's centre back across Moore and into the far corner of the net. Had Eltringham decided to show Morrison a red rather than yellow card for a late tackle on Travis, the finale might have been even more nervous.
Sheffield United: Moore, Bryan (Stevens 22), Osborn, Jagielka, Stearman, K Freeman, Besic,, Norwood (Mousset 65), Morrison, Sharp, McBurnie (L Freeman 46). Not used: Verrips, Basham, Lundstram, McGoldrick..
Blackburn Rovers: Leutwiler, Nyambe, Williams, Cunningham, Smallwood (Travis 65), Armstrong, Rothwell (Rankin-Costello 70), Dack (60), Lenihan, Evans, Buckley. Not used: Walton, Gallagher, Graham, Chapman, Grayson.
Referee: Geoff Eltringham (County Durham).
HIGHLIGHT: Ravel Morrison won the man of the match award but Simon Moore deserves an honourable mention for his performance, saving a penalty during the opening period of the game. With had that been converted, and with Blackburn Rovers starting brightly, the outcome could well have been different.