Sheffield United frustrated again, but this time for much better reasons - The story of their FA Cup quarter-final defeat at Chelsea
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“What are you doing? Why are you doing that?’ he screamed at no one in particular, before unleashing a torrent of invective even bluer than his Chelsea tracksuit.
A short pass to Tuchel’s right, Paul Heckingbottom was a picture of calm and concentration as Sheffield United made a surprisingly encouraging start to this FA Cup quarter-final tie. But only 10 minutes later, as a series of mistakes and misjudgements combined to unravel all of that good work, it was the visiting manager’s turn to be left wringing his hands in frustration as an own goal laid the platform for Tuchel’s men to progress.
Heckingbottom’s sense of disappointment, when he reflects upon the game, will be heightened by the fact United really should have drawn themselves level during an encouraging second-half display with substitute Hakim Ziyech only making sure of the outcome in added time.
“It’s tough to take, because I think we had a real opportunity out there,” he said, after watching David McGoldrick and Rhian Brewster both come within a whisker of scoring an equaliser. “I wish the players had got the result they deserved.”
A BIT OF BAD LUCK
Big games supposedly hinge on those mighty big moments members of Heckingbottom’s profession love to talk about. But this one, which saw United attempt to ensure what has been a thoroughly miserable season is remembered for something other than relegation, was effectively decided by several small errors condensed into a few first-half seconds. Defending a corner they could have avoided conceding, Norwood calculated Chilwell’s low drive was heading for the bottom corner of the net. It wasn’t. Well, not until the United midfielder stretched out a leg as he tried to intervene and diverted the ball beyond Aaron Ramsdale.
“There’s positives to take,” Heckingbottom continued, following his second outing in caretaker charge. “I’d rather be in the cup still but there’s big positives - particularly after the interval when we were braver on the ball.”
BLUES MADE TO SUFFER
After the draw was made at the beginning of last month, Tuchel admitted he had a hunch his team would be paired against United after visiting Bramall Lane only four days before their fifth round win over Barnsley. On that occasion, a goal from Mason Mount and a Jorginho penalty saw Chelsea overcome some stubborn resistance, bookending Antonio Rudiger’s clumsy hot shoe shuffle which had briefly drawn the hosts back on level terms.
Although the Londoners remain a testament to German efficiency, entering this tie on the back of an unbeaten 13 match run which had seen them score 15 times and concede only twice, United have descended into some sort of footballing slapstick act - crashing even deeper into trouble at the bottom of the Premier League table after making a horrendous start to life with Chris Wilder.
A week after being humbled 5-0 at Leicester City, yesterday’s match proved to be an equally frustrating experience. Only this time, for all the right reasons as United impressed with their discipline, tenacity and devotion to the plan Heckingbottom and Jason Tindall, making his first appearance in the technical area since arriving at Bramall Lane following Wilder’s exit, had devised.
“We had to suffer,” Christian Pulisic, the Chelsea forward, acknowledged. “Sheffield United didn’t make it easy for us - they’ve got got quality.”
A NOD FROM THOMAS
Tuchel was also impressed by United’s attitude and relieved to go through.
“We lost control, we lost concentration,” he said, insisting that fatigue following Wednesday’s Champions League clash with Atletico Madrid was also a factor. “We were fortunate to keep a clean sheet.”
Partly because his options have been so limited by injury, but also because he feels obliged to begin promoting youth, Heckingbottom, United’s under-23’s coach until earlier this month, named three Steelphalt Academy graduates among his replacements. But until the closing stages at least, as United searched for an equaliser, the 43-year-old was right to put his faith in experience as Tuchel rang the changes but still had the luxury of including Olivier Giroud, Mateo Kovacic and Christian Pulisic in his starting eleven.
A leveller should have arrived midway through the second period when, as they applied their first real spell of concerted pressure on the hosts’ defence, McGoldrick somehow conspired to turn John Lundstram’s cross wide. Yes, the United centre-forward was stretching at the far post. But his reaction - burying his face in the turf as he lay spread-eagled on the pitch - said it all. It was the type of opening the likes of Giroud or Ziyech and Kai Havertz, introduced during the closing stages, simply would not miss. The difference in the financial muscle these two clubs possess, however, was highlighted when Heckingbottom brought on Oliver Burke - a makeweight in the deal which took Callum Robinson to West Bromwich Albion - to try and inject some punch into United’s attack.
ZIYECH LANDS LATE BLOW
It was a credit to United’s character and perseverance that, despite their dominance of both territory and possession during the first two thirds of the game, Chelsea actually created precious few clear cut opportunities. Pulisic was denied by Aaron Ramsdale at the near post soon after the interval, but they spent long periods trying and failing to tease United out of the compact shape they took up whenever Tuchel’s men threatened.
Indeed, as they afternoon wore on, it was actually United who found themselves carving the better openings. McGoldrick, who had sent a long range effort straight at Kepa Arrizabalaga during the early exchanges, inexplicably failed to convert Lundstramn’s centre after arriving unnoticed into the Basque’s six yard box. Enda Stevens could also have done better when he headed into the side netting from a similar position moments later before Ziyech steered home late on, after Brewster had seen a shot fly just wide.