Sheffield United 2 Southampton 2 (Saints win 4-2 on penalties): Blades beaten but unbowed

IN FOOTBALL, momentum can be such a precious commodity.

Enda Stevens is congratulated by Sheffield United team-mate Jayden Bogle after his opener at Bramall Lane. Picture: SPORTIMAGE.
Enda Stevens is congratulated by Sheffield United team-mate Jayden Bogle after his opener at Bramall Lane. Picture: SPORTIMAGE.

On the back of a breakthrough week that Slavisa Jokanovic and everyone connected with Sheffield United had been hankering for after some teething troubles at the start of 2021-22, some would have ventured that the Serbian faced a bit of a conundrum.

Would he switch his entire starting line-up for the third successive game in this competition - with an eye on resting up players for key league business - and potentially run the risk of being punished by Premier League opponents who won 8-0 in the previous round and possibly lose some impetus.

Or would he elect to field a number of those players who had provided a welcome transfusion of hope to Unitedites in league games against Hull City, Preston and Peterborough in his quest to continue to construct a 'feel good factor'.

Managers are paid to make those sorts of calls and Jokanovic again changed his cast completely and his policy was vindicated, even in defeat.

The intensity, application and energy of those currently not in possession of starting jerseys in the league was excellent and pointed to a squad who are in a good working order.

It may have been a night when the Blades bowed out of the Carabao Cup, by virtue of a penalty shoot-out loss which saw Rhian Brewster and Oli McBurnie both fail to convert, yet the response of hardcore Unitedites among a crowd of 8,934 was telling.

They recognised a fine effort on the night and viewed the bigger picture. This is a group of players who are showing signs of going the right way once again. The Blades' heart is back beating.

A cracking tie saw milestone home goals from Enda Stevens, who put United early on in front with his first goal in over 18 months and a leveller midway through the second period from Oli McBurnie, whose wait for a Blades goal had stretched back to December.

The latter's strike restored parity after Saints had turned the game around to lead through goals from Ibrahima Diallo and Mohammed Salisu, but United refused to go quietly.

The tone for a watchable encounter that merited a bigger audience began with an incisive opener from an unlikely outlet in Stevens, making his first start of the season following double hernia surgery.

It owed plenty to fine raiding down the right from Jayden Bogle, who surged clear on the right after being cleverly fed by Luke Freeman, with his cut-back dispatched by Stevens.

Earlier, a fair gathering from Southampton had been quick to voice their antipathy towards big rivals Portsmouth in song, only for a former Pompey player in Stevens to silence them with a rare goal to put United ahead.

It was the prelude to an opening 45 minutes that painted both sides in a positive light at opposing ends of the pitch, with United’s new kid on the block in Iliman Ndiaye and one with a bit to prove in Oliver Burke among those to catch the eye from a home perspective.

Even if both did miss presentable first-half opportunities after giving debutant Lyanco and Salisu the slip down the left-hand side.

At the other end, Saints posted a threat in the pace of Nathan Tella and Moussa Djenepo on opposing flanks and it was on the right-hand side where an equaliser was forged with Oriol Romeo given the time to pick out Diallo, who nodded in his first goal for the Saints midway through the half just minutes after spurning a big close-range chance.

Ben Osborn and James Ward-Prowse arrived for their respective sides at the interval and both came to the party in the second period and after the former was denied by Fraser Forster after a flowing move, the latter played his part in the Saints' second.

The England international was the architect of a neat short corner routine which ended with Tella setting up Salisu to fire crisply home - another to score a maiden goal for Saints - but Osborn's cross was tucked away at the back stick by McBurnie to level it up.

A miraculous point-blank save from Wes Foderingham prevented ex-Blades forward Che Adams from winning it for the visitors soon after he came on and earned United a deserved crack at penalties.

Oli Norwood and Osborn netted for the hosts, but it was complimented by misses from Brewster and McBurnie, with it left to Romeu to apply the last rites, with only Armando Broja failing to convert for the Saints.

A night when the hosts were beaten but very much unbowed.

Sheffield United: Foderingham; Bogle, Basham, Robinson, Stevens; Norwood, Guedioura; Freeman (Osborn 45), Burke (Brewster 45), Ndiaye (Fleck 78); McBurnie. Substitutes unused: Sharp, Verrips, Norrington-Davies, Lopata.

Southampton: Forster; Valery, Lyanco (Bednarek 74), Salisu, Perraud; Romeu; Diallo; Djenepo, Redmond (Ward-Prowse 45), Tella (Adams 81); Broja. Substitutes unused: Walker-Peters, Long, Elyounoussi, Lewis.

Referee: J Brooks (Leicestershire).

Attendance: 8,934.

Sheffield United: Foderingham; Bogle, Basham, Robinson, Stevens; Norwood, Guedioura; Burke, Ndiaye, Freeman; McBurnie. Substitutes unused: Fleck, Brewster, Sharp, Verrips, Osborn, Norrington-Davies, Lopata.

Southampton: Forster; Valery, Lyanco, Salisu, Perraud; Romeu, Diallo; Djenepo, Redmond, Tella; Broja. Substitutes unused: Walker-Peters, Long, Ward-Prowse, Adams, Elyounoussi, Bednarek, Lewis.