Reading 1 Sheffield United 2 - Job done as Billy Sharp grabs FA Cup extra-time winner
The Blades are in the FA Cup quarter-finals, but a sloppy performance at the Madejski Stadium made hard work of it until Billy Sharp came to the rescue.
They were taken into extra-time by Reading as the sides became the first to feel the effects of the decision to scrap Cup replays in the fifth round, a further marginalisation of a once-great competition to suit the might of the Premier League’s biggest clubs.
In front after just two minutes, the Blades had taken the sting out of the game, and spent much of the second half trying to put it back in. It took until the 106th minute for Sharp to spare their blushes with a header in stoppage-time of the first half of extra-time.
Scoring early through David McGoldrick, United were very comfortable for most of the first half – too comfortable.
Ben Osborn, in for the injured Enda Stevens, produced a wonderful curling cross for McGoldrick to guide his header inside the far post and score his first club goal since Easter. There were less than two minutes gone.
From there, it was all very controlled from the Blades.
For the first time since his club record transfer, Sander Berge was playing as a holding midfielder and for 45 minutes he oozed quality, always available for the ball and quickly lending it to a team-mate.
McGoldrick was making his first start since January 10 and despite his lack of goals, his team had missed him. A tackle back on Ovie Ejaria ten yards into his own half in the 10th minute showed what he brings.
To Berge’s left, Luke Freeman buzzed around with real energy but so in control of the situation were the Premier League team there was a lack of urgency, despite the support of 2,086 away fans. For all that the Blades were on top, little was seen of Lys Mousset at centre-forward until he was substituted on the hour.
Reading were quieter too in the first period, and it was a shock when Dean Henderson had to fly through the air after 14 minutes to give an excellent move a save to match when Yakou Meite cut in onto his right foot.
That said, the Blades were hardly peppering Rafael Cabral. John Egan skimmed a header onto the roof of the net after 28 minutes, and McGoldrick forced a low save eight minutes later but it was a low-octane game.
George Baldock, whose brother Sam came off the Royals’ bench, unwittingly injected a bit of life into it.
Caught the wrong side of Andy Rinomhota when the ball came into the box, he gave him a nudge which doubled as an invitation to go to ground and Kevin Friend awarded the soft penalty. George Puscas put it away a minute before half-time.
Despite what can only have been a feisty half-time reception for them in the dressing room, the Blades re-emerged with the same lethargy. They were fortunate Michael Olise and Andy Yiadom’s volleying was not up to scratch, but the game was being played in their half and centre-back Matt Miazga’s cockiness on the ball as he ignored McGoldrick closing him down showed how the pendulum had swung.
Berge and McGoldrick’s influence dipped notably, both substituted in the search for extra oomph, and there was only Freeman’s energy to take comfort from. It took until the final quarter of regulation time and the introduction of Oli McBurnie to liven the Blades up and they began to dominate again but it was too little too late to avoid extra-time.
A back-pedalling McGoldrick put another Osborn cross onto the roof of the net, Freeman won the ball from Swift and forced a good save and Chris Basham got a glance on a left-wing cross when he needed more, but there was an inevitability about the extra 30 minutes.
It was the punishment the blunt Blades deserved. Jack O’Connell went down with cramp late in the game and Baldock was struggling too.
Jack Robinson and Panagiotis Retsos made debuts in extra-time, Osborn, then Retsos taking the role vacated by Berge, but the job of left wing-back was a defensive one at that stage, and Swift ran onto his header to fire another warning shot wide of Henderson’s goal.
Sharp’s header from a cross by Freeman was against the run of play but even with Pele having a shot turned around the post and another just wide in the final minute, the job had been done. Just.
Reading: Cabral; Yiadom, Morrison, Miazga, Obita; Rinomhota (Baldock 106); Meite (McCleary 106), Swift, Ejaria (Pele 98), Olise (Masika 98); Puscas. Unused substitutes: Walker, Moore,, Blackett.
Sheffield United: Henderson; Basham, Egan, O’Connell; Baldock, Lundstram, Berge (Robinson 98), L Freeman (Retsos 106), Osborn; McGoldrick (Sharp 79); Mousset (McBurnie 61). Unused substitutes: Jagielka, Verrips, Zivkovic.
Referee: K Friend (Leicestershire).