BEFORE a Premier League ball was kicked in August, many observers will have expected the ‘R word’ doing the rounds ahead of this particular January fixture to centre on talk of relegation as opposed to respect for Sheffield United.
Perhaps nothing is testament to the Blades’ magnificent rise quite as much as the fact that Pep Guardiola, learned manager of reigning champions Manchester City, spoke of being inspired and enlightened by his Yorkshire opponents in the pre-match build-up instead.
It was no glib attempt at flattery either. When Guardiola talks, people in football tend to listen. His laudable record dictates that.
The same can be said of his counterpart Chris Wilder and on that same subject of respect, his goalkeeper Dean Henderson is starting to garner an increasing amount of that.
Viewed as a future England No 1 in the making, Henderson showcased his repertoire with a trio of majestic first-half reaction saves – including a 36th-minute block to thwart Gabriel Jesus from the penalty spot.
Perhaps nothing is testament to the Blades’ magnificent rise quite as much as the fact that Pep Guardiola spoke of being inspired and enlightened by his Yorkshire opponents in the pre-match build-up.Leon Wobschall
Small wonder that Unitedites instantly burst into a booming chorus of ‘England’s No 1’ after that save, which came after similarly outstanding efforts to deny Raheem Sterling and Nicolas Otamendi – and surely it is a matter of when not if he is handed his maiden senior appearance for the Three Lions.
A tough taskmaster, it was the sort of performance that goes down well with Wilder, who had shown tough love to refuse to lift Henderson’s spirits after his costly game-defining error in the high-profile home game with Liverpool in September.
Praise has to be earned and luxuriating in the glow of past achievements is also not for the streetwise Sheffielder, candid enough to accept that his side’s last few performances, in his eyes, have been below-par by his high standards.
What he witnessed collectively last night will have yielded a feeling of pleasure, if not the result for United, entertaining the champions of England exactly three years to the day since they welcomed Gillingham.
United displayed perspiration and polish and moments after the outstretched leg of Oli McBurnie went oh-so-close to turning in Enda Stevens’s cross, the goal machine at the other end fared better to settle the issue 17 minutes from time.
After five goals in his previous two appearances, Sergio Aguero – who started on the bench – was the natural go-to man for Guardiola amid his embarrassment of riches and it was duly proved when he tapped in from close range following a typical pinpoint assist from Kevin De Bruyne.
There was nothing that even Henderson could do about that one, with the pre-match restlessness of Guardiola finally parting.
The Spaniard had cut an agitated figure in watching his side’s rearguard deficiencies at the weekend – and reacted by naming an entirely new defence, including former Blades defender Kyle Walker.
After being critical of elements of his side’s display at Arsenal, United’s high-tempo in the first half will have been much more to Wilder’s satisfaction.
The visitors did briefly threaten to take over midway through the half, but United regrouped –although they were indebted to the brilliance of Henderson.
The opening salvos saw Mo Besic – in for John Lundstram – announce the Blades’ intent in no uncertain terms with a tough sliding challenge on the returning Aymeric Laporte, given an unceremonious ‘welcome back’ in his first outing since August 31.
City overcame a testing start and started to warm up, but they reckoned without Henderson, who made a fine point-blank save to turn away Sterling’s effort following Basham’s error before showing agility to parry Nicolas Otamendi’s acrobatic effort ahead of his penalty save.
After being ferocious and unstinting in their first-half efforts, the onus was on United to piece together one of two moments at the other end to make something count in front of the Kop, increasingly irked by the decision-making of referee Lee Mason.
Three United midfielders in Besic, Oliver Norwood and John Fleck were cautioned in the opening 45 minutes, with the decision to book Fernandinho close to the break being the cue to ironic applause from home fans.
As most suspected, City hogged possession, but United showed a strong jaw to hang in and wait for their chance, while mindful that Aguero lurked in the shadows.
A chance that the Argentine would surely have dispatched saw Jesus head straight at Henderson before United almost applied the sting when an improvised backheel from substitute Lys Mousset was gratefully grasped by Ederson.
The cavalry was called for in the shape of City’s joint top-scorer and after McBurnie went close, he moved in front of Sterling with his 21st goal of the season as Blue Monday belatedly turned into Blue Tuesday.
Sheffield United: Henderson; Basham (C Robinson 78), Egan, O’Connell; Baldock, Besic (Lundstram 78), Norwood, Fleck, Stevens; Sharp (Mousset 59), McBurnie. Substitutes unused: Jagielka, K Freeman, Verrips, Osborn.
Man City: Ederson; Fernandinho, Otamendi, Laporte (Garcia 78); Walker, De Bruyne, Rodrigo, Zinchenko; Mahrez, Jesus (Aguero 67), Sterling (B Silva 90). Substitutes unused: Bravo, Gundogan, Cancelo, Foden.
Referee: L Mason (Lancashire).