Sheffield United: Rhian Brewster breaks his duck and Kacpar Lopata impresses on his debut as The Blades secure their first win under Slavisa Jokanovic
Slavisa Jokanovic didn’t just want a win. He also craved a performance. Something which suggested the players at Sheffield United’s disposal are beginning to grasp his strategies and ideas.
What he got, against a Carlisle side full of grit and determination, was all of that and more. Rhian Brewster scored his first goal for the hosts at the 32nd time of asking while, in Kacpar Lopata, a new star was born.
Little wonder, as he watched all of this happen from his vantage point on the touchline, Jokanovic cut a slightly less brooding figure than usual.
Although United’s new manager later outlined his satisfaction at seeing them reach the second round of the Carabao Cup, the manner of tonight’s victory - and its principal architects - will have pleased him even more than the result itself.
Excelling in the Championship, not the knockout competitions, is United’s priority this season. Getting the best out of Brewster, who has appeared short of form and self-belief since completing a £23.5m move from Liverpool, will be crucial if they are to achieve their aim of making an immediate return to the Premier League. He remains a work in progress but the finish - clinical and ruthless - reminded why Jokanovic’s predecessor Chris Wilder was persuaded to invest so heavily in his services.
While Brewster reflected upon his breakthrough moment - and the impact it could have upon his game - Lopata also left the pitch knowing the tie was a significant moment in his own career. Released by Brighton and Hove Albion before heading to South Yorkshire, the 19-year-old produced a superb performance on his first senior outing for United. Physically strong and fearless in the tackle, Lopata also possesses an expansive passing repertoire which he showcased on numerous occasions. A bright future beckons.
If people thought losing his first game in charge had limited Jokanovic’s room for manoeuvre in terms of his team selections, they were mistaken. Every single one of the eleven players who had started last weekend’s defeat by Birmingham City were either dropped to the bench or rested altogether. Five of those deployed against the visitors from Cumbria were making their debuts, including brothers Kyron Gordon and Tyler Smith. Rhys Norrington-Davies of Wales, Zak Brunt and Lopata, capped by Poland at under-19 level, completed the quintet.
It should have translated into a disjointed performance full of misplaced passes and positional mistakes. Instead, wearing an open necked shirt down on the touchline, Jokanovic must have been encouraged to see his picks grab the contest by the scruff of the neck with first Billy Sharp and then Lopata going close during the opening stages.
A combative centre-half hailing from Krakow, Lopata’s header from Luke Freeman’s corner set the tone for an assured performance from the youngster. Defensively sound, the teenager also posed a constant threat going forward. Soon after seeing his first attempt in senior football smothered by the massed ranks of Carlisle’s rearguard, Lopata was responsible for creating Sharp’s second opportunity of the evening. Uncharacteristically, however, it also went begging when the United captain got himself into a tangle as he tried to adjust his feet.
Oli McBurnie, who replaced Sharp at half-time, suffered exactly the same fate when Jayden Bogle whipped a tantalising cross towards the far post soon after the restart.
Although he would never say so publicly - out of respect for the opposition and also the tournament - Jokanovic’s decision to rotate his squad full circle was also influenced by what turned out to be a chaotic pre-season campaign. With the Covid-19 ping’demic limiting them to only two friendlies rather than five - and one of those was against a team who would struggle to make an impression on the Conference North - the players at Jokanovic’s disposal are all desperately short of fitness. And if the former Yugoslavia midfielder is true to his word, then most of them will be utilised between now and May.
Lopata’s chance to shine could come sooner rather than later, thanks to his influence on this match. But it was Brewster who was responsible for turning United’s dominance into a lead when, midway through the first-half, he ended his 10 month wait for a goal. Lukas Jensen did well to save from Sharp but was still climbing back to his feet when the former Liverpool striker smashed the loose ball into the back of the net. Brewster marked the occasion with the type of celebration which would have left Marco Tardelli green with envy. And who could blame him after hearing his ability and attitude constantly questioned throughout what was a 31 match drought.
Although Carlisle would have claimed an immediate equaliser had any one of Chris Beech’s players got a touch on a Taylor Charters’ centre as it flashed across the box, United remained in almost total control until the break.
Lopata tested Jensen’s handling again while Brewster, clearly benefiting from the shot of confidence his earlier effort had provided, saw a long-range shot spiral just over the crossbar after taking a deflection.
Carlisle improved as the tie wore on with Manasse Mampala, their standout performer, twice going close. Michael Verrips, preferred ahead of Wes Foderingham as Aaron Ramsdale was rested, did well to smother a low drive from the centre-forward at the beginning of the second-half while Mampala will have been disappointed not to have hit the target as it drew to a close.