Sheffield United see one route to Europe blocked off after late FA Cup drama
A week-and-a-half ago they were firmly in contention to qualify for Europe on two fronts. On Sunday one was blocked off, and the other is looking increasingly difficult.
Their best performance of the resumption was not enough to stop the Blades going out of the FA Cup quarter-finals. Just as it looked as if they might snatch a late winner against Arsenal, they conceded one. Football can be very cruel sometimes.
John Lundstram went off injured, but not before having a goal chalked off by the bane of Sheffield United’s season, the video assistant referee.
It would be very easy for the Blades to feel sorry for themselves, but it is essential they do not.
It had all started so well for a team who did not look down in the dumps after a poor restart to 2019-20.
Maybe the comforts of home helped. For the first time since March they were in their proper strip of red-and-white shirts, black shorts and red socks, emerging from the Bramall Lane tunnel to their usual walk-on music after their opponents dribbled out of the stand to line up behind a sponsor’s board in near silence.
The strains of “Greasy Chip Butty” rang out as the players took a knee, abruptly stopping for the game to get underway.
Arsenal’s team selection gave a respectful nod to Sheffield United, lining up in a 3-3-3-1, but it was not returning centre-back David Luiz the Blades looked to exploit early on, but the man to his right. David McGoldrick continued making runs down Shkodran Mustafi’s right-hand side and his team-mates kept finding him. It was via that route they thought they had taken the lead.
Jack Robinson released the roaming centre-forward in the seventh minute. When the ball was returned to the central defender, his smothered shot went behind for a corner, then Enda Stevens won another. From it, Lundstram headed the Blades in front. Or so everyone thought.
All 22 players were lined up to restart from the centre spot when video assistant referee Peter Bankes correctly pointed out the midfielder had been one of two Blades in an offside position. As so often this season, VAR had rained on the Blades’ parade.
Still Sheffield United hammered away at the Gunners’ weak spot.
Oliver Norwood found McGoldrick, but the striker could not stretch to the recalled Oli McBurnie’s flick-on from the resulting corner. An excellent turn to take John Fleck away from Nicolas Pepe and release McGoldrick again came to nothing in the 16th minute. It would be the last time Sheffield United seriously threatened down that avenue.
The game turned on another VAR decision midway through the first half, but this time it backed up rather than over-ruled the referee.
Chris Basham looked distraught to have a penalty given against him when he grazed Andre Lacazette’s ankle just inside the penalty area.
Again the players seemed fooled, gravitating towards the positions for a free-kick just outside the area, only for Brookes to support Paul Tierney. Pepe thumped the penalty beyond Dean Henderson, then forced a good low save from him after an excellent reverse pass inside by Lacazette.
The Blades were wobbling on the ropes and their day was about to get worse still, Lundstram departing with his shirt acting as an improvised sling for his left arm.
They steadied themselves after the break and were the better team of the second half, piling pressure on an Arsenal side who looked unwilling or unable to throw many counter-punches. Until their 88th-minute equaliser, though, the Blades were struggling to land themselves.
McBurnie had a header saved from Robinson’s long throw-in, Henderson’s long kick almost embarrassed his opposite number Emiliano Martinez, and Basham put a good chance wide from a diving header as Sheffield United’s overlapping centre-backs combined from Robinson’s cross.
Most moves, though, were breaking down for the lack of a final pass and even with the Blades dangerous after withdrawing Basham to switch to a diamond midfield, a goal did not look like it was coming.
McGoldrick was high at the tip of the midfield, with McBurnie and substitute Billy Sharp wide centre-forwards. When his pass allowed McBurnie to do no more than win an 88th-minute throw-in it looked like another good opportunity passed up, but as the ball bounced around from Robinson’s delivery, McGoldrick poked it home.
It was his second goal of the season, in consecutive Cup games.
The wind was in the Blades sails and Martinez soon had to save from his legs from Sharp. Perhaps even at this late stage extra-time could be averted. The frustration from the Arsenal bench, directed towards the referee, was loud and clear.
But in the first minute of stoppage time, it was they who delivered the killer blow.
A good tackle from Stevens on Pepe was not an end to the break from former Leeds United loanee Eddie Nketiah, and from the loose ball substitute Dani Ceballos drilled a shot between Henderson’s legs.
It was a devastating blow, but the Blades will have to ensure the damage to their season extends only as far as the FA Cup.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Henderson; Basham (Sharp 76), Egan, J Robinson; Baldock (K Freeman 63), Fleck, Norwood, Lundstram (Berge 35), Stevens; McGoldrick, McBurnie.
Substitutes: L Freeman, Jagielka, Mousset, Osborn, Moore, Zivkovic.
ARSENAL: Martinez; Mustafi, Luiz (Holding 54), Kolasinac; Maitland-Niles, Xhaka, Tierney; Pepe (Sokratis 90), Willock (Ceballos 67), Saka; Lacazette (Nketiah 67).
Substitutes: Bellerin, Aubemeyang, Nelson, Macey, Smith.
Referee: Paul Tierney.
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