Sheffield United shake off Chris Wilder shock with a spirited, organised but ultimately unsuccessful performance at Chelsea
Wembley was at stake for Sheffield United at Stamford Bridge, but the most important task for them was to show that the previous week's 5-0 defeat at Leicester City was a short-lived bout of post-traumatic stress disorder, not part of a longer-term problem.
It was not a day for lofty ambitions but they at least managed that.
Thrown together the previous weekend, with Covid-19 regulations keeping caretaker manager Paul Heckingbottom away from his players until the morning of the game, it was not a surprise the performance that followed was a bit of a shambles, but only when they played again would we know it was not a one-off.
At Chelsea, they showed that it was, even in a defeat effectively secured by an own goal, confirmed by a stoppage-time second.
The men in pink were spirited and organised, and after 45 minutes of damage limitation, showed they had it within themselves to throw some punches too. Had David McGoldrick's header been better, they might well have extended their FA Cup run by at least another 30 minutes. As it was, they headed out of the competition 2-0.
The game was a quarter of the way through and barely anything had happened for the television viewers.
Unashamedly limited in their ambitions, the Blades were spirited and extremely well organised in their defending – a back five featuring only one centre-back (Phil Jagielka) extremely well marshalled by Aaron Ramsdale forcing Chelsea into a game of patience.
On the sidelines, Heckingbottom and Jason Tindall stationed themselves on the edge of the penalty area, adding further noisy directions to look and sound like joint managers. Wilder's former coaches Alan Knill, Matt Prestridge, Darren Ward and Mike Allen were all at home, the club slightly bizarrely revealing they had made an “offer” to keep Knill, who is under contract until 2024.
With Tindall watching from the stands, yet to officially start his new job, Knill had been invisible once the warm-up was over at the King Power Stadium but the former Bournemouth manager was much more involved, even tackling Emerson as the Chelsea defender and the ball hurtled towards him at one point.
If the winds of change are blowing through the backroom, there is no such revolution on the field, or at least not just yet. An hour before kick-off the Blades tweeted their team in a 4-4-2 formation but come the kick-off it was back to the familiar formation that brought Wilder so much success until the team hit the buffers this season.
Jayden Bogle was the only outfield player not to have been at the club last season.
McGoldrick hit an early shot at Kepa Arrizabalaga and Jagielka lobbed a header up from a corner for him to catch, but to call either chances would be an insult even to a goalkeeper whose stock has fallen as rapidly as the Spaniards. Still, it was 43 minutes until the hosts, for all their possession, had a shot on target.
They still managed to score in that time, mind.
Callum Hudson-Odoi fired in a cross and with Olivier Giroud running in on it, Ramsdale put it behind for a corner which ended up at the feet of Ben Chilwell on the opposite side of the field. When he drilled the ball in, Oliver Norwood directed it past his goalkeeper, an opening goal after 23 minutes.
Norwood was Chelsea's biggest attacking the threat in the first half, giving the ball up for the chance Ramsdale rushed off his line to save from Christian Pulisic.
The Blades had to be more positive in the second half and were, pushing McGoldrick closer to Oli McBurnie and making Bogle and Ben Osborn more wing-backs than full-backs. Rhian Brewster and Oli Burke would come from the bench to join McGoldrick in a front three for the final 12 minutes. Lys Mousset who make it four. Thomas Tuchel began swapping forwards for more defensive players.
Inevitably it meant more action at the other end too, Ramsdale starting the half by saving with his legs from Pulisic, then seeing an Emerson free-kick go wide of his goal. Hudson-Odoi blazed a shot high and wide.
John Lundstram's cross to John Fleck was cut, but the intent from the visitors was much better and they might have had something to show for it had McGoldrick been sharper.
He had already been caught offside to spoil a good Osborn run (though in fairness the defenders were all behind him) and seen the ball trickle out for a throw-in with some poor control when he missed the best chance of the game.
“Who's in the box?” demanded Heckingbottom as Lundstram shaped over a 68th-minute cross. The answer was McGoldrick, but he put his diving header wide. A minute later, Arrizabalaga saved from Oli McBurnie.
McGoldrick forced the ball across from the byline without a touch, then Enda Stevens headed a Norwood free-kick just wide at the far post, and Brewster rippled the net from the wrong side with a deflected 90th minute shot.
When Chelsea broke in stoppage time, Hakim Ziyech controlled the ball and volleyed it in with one of the last kicks of what did actually prove to be a contest.
Chelsea: Arrizabalaga; Christensen (Azpilicueta 63), Zouma, Emerson; Hudson-Odoi (Havertz 72), Gilmour (Ziyech 72), Kovacic, Chilwell; Mount, Giroud (James 63), Pulisic (Kante 83).
Unused substitutes: Rudiger, Alonso, Werner, Caballero.
Sheffield United: Ramsdale; Bogle (Mousset 90), Baldock, Jagielka, Stevens, Osborn; Lundstram, Norwood (Brewster 78), Fleck; McGoldrick; McBurnie.
Unused substitutes: Lowe, Burke, Foderingham, Bryan, Brunt, Gordon, Ndiaye.
Referee: A Madeley (West Yorkshire).
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