Sheffield United fluff their lines at a vital moment, as Blackburn Rovers build momentum
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After the drama of Wednesday night, when a much changed United side stunned Tottenham Hotspur, this defeat to a Blackburn Rovers side with designs on the Premier League themselves served as a timely reminder that nothing can ever be taken for granted in the game’s most chaotic division.
Having arrived at Ewood Park supposedly with one foot in the Premier League, the visitors left it once again peering anxiously over their shoulders and awaiting news of results elsewhere in the competition.
“I’m disappointed,” Heckingbottom said. “We weren’t at our fluent best and didn’t play with our usual intensity.”
Harry Pickering’s strike, or the events preceding it to be exact, highlighted one of the few vulnerabilities in an otherwise supremely strong squad. Namely, a lack of pace in central areas.
The ease with which Rovers swept the ball upfield, after seizing it back on the edge of their own six yard box, made unpleasant viewing for Heckingbottom as he watched the action from the stands. Likewise, despite a flurry of changes, the sight of United growing increasingly ragged as the contest progressed. Their performance after the break was woefully inadequate.
“I thought we’d go on and win,” Heckingbottom continued. “But at the start of the second-half, that caused the problem.”
Second versus fourth in the table and with both teams buoyed by superb FA Cup results - where they will face each other again later this month for a place in the semi-finals - the stadium’s in-house ents team gave it the big licks beforehand. “Make some noise for the boys,” the PA announced implored and they did. Particularly when Pickering fired Rovers in front during the opening skirmishes, sweeping the ball home as he applied the finish touches to a rapid counter attacking move.
“I was proud of the way we coped,” said Rovers’ manager Jon Dahl Tomasson, after watching his men record their fifth straight victory. With one of those coming over Leicester City on Tuesday, the Dane’s squad is growing in confidence and building momentum. “It’s been a great week.”
Tomasson had clearly done his homework, as a pattern began to emerge. United would commit men forward, albeit without their usual conviction. And when Rovers wrestled back possession, which they did more often than Heckingbottom would have liked, they exploited the space behind his overlapping centre-halves on the flank. United’s persistence nearly paid off when Chris Basham, replacing the suspended Anel Ahmedhodzic, danced through the hosts’ defence only to lose his balance at the vital moment. The same went for Rovers’ slavish devotion to Tomasson’s game-plan, when Tyrhys Dolan, who had claimed the assist for Pickering’s effort, struck the woodwork soon after at the other end of the pitch. They did the same again midway through the second period, when Sammie Szmodics’s long-range attempt cannoned back off the crossbar.
“When we did get into good areas,” Heckingbottom lamented, “We just didn’t create enough.”