Wolves v Sheffield United: Blades have their moments but exit the FA Cup thanks to Premier League class
Paul Heckingbottom denied this would be a gauge of Sheffield United’s promotion credentials and to some degree he was right.
But what today’s FA Cup tie against Wolverhampton Wanderers did prove, other than the importance of being ruthless in front of goal, was that if they are able to plot a course out of the Championship later this season, the 44-year-old will have an awful lot of rebuilding work to do.
Against Premier League opponents who advanced into the fourth round courtesy of Nelson Semedo’s finish and a Daniel Podence brace, United worked hard, battled well and departed Molineux with their credibility intact. Indeed there were periods, most notably at the beginning of the contest, when they genuinely troubled Bruno Lage’s side.
But when it truly mattered, during those pivotal moments when matches like this are shaped and settled, United lacked the magic to exploit the openings they created. And unlike Wolves, the spitefulness to punish mistakes with the second of Podence’s efforts presented to him on a plate.
Heckingbottom should be proud of United’s contribution, particularly with 11 members of his squad absent through either illness or injury. But he is also a realist and, as he attempts to lead them back into the top-flight next term, aware of the difference in class and strength between the two outfits.
Particularly in those areas where results are decided - around the two penalty areas.
It speaks volumes about the esteem in which the competition is now held that, despite supposedly being in the middle of a Covid-19 crisis, English football’s governing body seemingly had no problem persuading clubs the third round should go ahead as planned. Selections that are supposedly unthinkable at league level - such as the one which saw youngsters Kyron Gordon, William Osula and Joe Starbuck all named in the visitors’ matchday squad - are now apparently viewed as being acceptable for what was once the world’s best loved domestic knockout tournament.
In fairness to Heckingbottom, whose team was making its first appearance for nearly three weeks following a rash of postponements, United never once called for a fixture to be rearranged over the Christmas and New Year Period. They started this contest with trademark courage and conviction before discovering, after Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick had both gone close, that those qualities only take you so far against top-flight players.
Unlike McGoldrick, who seconds earlier had seen a shot cannon of John Ruddy’s chest despite being left unmarked inside the area, Podence was not about to pass up the chance which came his way when Jack Robinson failed to thwart Fabio Silva.
United had been the better side - by some margin - until that point. But goals change games and, once the winger had fired them in front after 14 minutes, Lage’s men took charge. Still, but for one of those soft decisions which make you wonder if this really is still a contact sport, United would have entered the interval on level terms - Sharp hooking into the back of the net from close range, only to be penalised for a high boot.
Semedo pounced on the counter attack before Podence struck again, caressing the ball home after Raul Jiminez had got the better of Wes Foderingham.