Sheffield United given a bitter test of what like with the elite is really like
The performance of Paul Heckingbottom’s players allowed it to be a proud celebration from a club who hope to have another on Wednesday, when promotion to the Premier League can be confirmed by beating West Bromwich Albion.
But it was also a warning of the work needed this summer, not just in terms of signing players, but those already in place upping their games.
As Sander Berge put it, “It’s a completely different game to the Championship.”
There are, however, solid foundations with a manger who thinks cleverly about the game and players who will give their all for him. Against opposition this good, it was not enough. The good news is there is little if any opposition this good.
Even a 3-0 win for a team threatening to go down in history came from a game of fine margins.
That is why in late April Pep Guardiola’s side is still in contention to win the European Cup, Premier League and FA Cup. The very best get the details spot on.
Even reserves like hat-trick scorer Riyad Mahrez – not quite good enough for the strongest XI picked home and away against Bayern Munich in the European quarter-final – are usually right on point.
George Baldock called City “a level above” the team he faced in two Premier League seasons.
The Blades missed a copper-plated chance to lead in the second minute. They then kept City at arm’s length for 40 minutes, only for striker Daniel Jebbison to swing a leg and foul Bernardo Silva in the area.
Mahrez, preferred as penalty-taker to Erling Haaland after a couple of malfunctions by the Leeds-born Terminator, did not pass up the chance.
When Max Lowe dawdled on the ball near the centre spot, Mahrez took it off him, drove to within striking distance and made it 2-0.
Although it took until he swept home a third from Jack Grealish’s pass five minutes later for City fans to do the Poznan and the substitutionfest to kick in as players on both sides were rested for bigger games on Wednesday – City play Arsenal – and others rewarded or given valuable experience, those three moments in 61 minutes decided it.
“Sometimes you make poor decisions and you don’t get punished in the Championship and sometimes you don’t get punished in the Premier League but more often than not you do,” said Baldock wistfully.
If Jebbison’s over-exuberance and Lowe’s fuzzy thinking looked poor from the sofa, pub or even the terraces, it was important to understand how City forced them.
“It’s more of a leg-burner as opposed to a lung-burner,” explained Baldock. “The Championship can sometimes be frantic and you’re breathing heavily but this is more mentally draining.
“They grind you down and pounce on all your little mistakes. We just made one or two too many.”
That apart, there was a lot to like.
The Blades had their moments early on, Heckingbottom deciding the best way to counter Guardiola’s innovation of turning full-backs into central midfielders in possession was to quickly hit balls into the areas they vacated as soon as possible.
They won a corner inside a minute that way but Ndiaye’s finish from John Egan’s header allowed Stefan Ortega to save low. When Jebbison’s flick-on released him again in the seventh minute, the angle was too tight for Ndiaye to hit the target.
Then it became a proper game of defence-versus-attack. City had 79 per cent of the ball – it felt like more – and seven corners at 0-0. But the only save Wes Foderinghm had to make before Mahrez beat him from 12 yards was Silva’s curler.
“I went with Sander to watch Manchester City v Bayern Munich at the Etihad and I’m sure they had more clear-cut opportunities in that game,” said Baldock. “I’m not saying we were in complete control but possession doesn’t mean anything.”
Or as Berge put it, “We were sound with them playing in front of us” as City were denied the space for the pull-backs they prefer to crosses.
The problem was that with little Blades threat – Berge had one breakout but his cross was cut out and Jack Robinson dragged his shot wide at the corner – the leg-burning was unrelenting and eventually spread to Lowe’s brain.
Even at 3-0 the Blades refuse to lie down, putting Billy Sharp and Oli McBurnie on to join Ndiaye.
But the elite of English football are becoming so detached from the rest it is impossible to join the Premier League without significant recruitment. Sheffield United’s transfer embargo was lifted on Thursday but they need a takeover to genuinely compete not with City – don’t be daft – but the top-flight’s also-rans.
What the Blades have is a spirit and a togetherness recognised and reflected by a fanbase who sang proudly as the game meandered through its meaningless final half-hour. There is much to do but a good starting point.
Manchester City: Ortega; Walker, Akanji, Laporte, Gomez; Gundogan (Phillips 75), Silva (Lewis 81); Mahrez, Alvarez, Grealish (Palmer 67); Haaland (Foden 67). Unused substitutes: Ederson, Dias, Stones, Rodrigo, De Bruyne, Lewis.
Sheffield United: Foderingham; Baldock (Bogle 75), Ahmedhodzic (Coulibaly 75), Egan, Robinson, Lowe ; Berge (Basham 75), Norwood, Fleck (Sharp 66); Jebbison (McBurnie 57), Ndiaye. Unused substitutes: Davies, Clark, Arblaster, Brooks.
Referee: S Attwell (Nuneaton)