IN A fixture forever associated with a passionate moment in the seventies, Sheffield United kissed goodbye to their cup hopes last night.
It was back in 1975 when Tony Currie and Alan Birchenall became the talk of football after a playful on-pitch kiss in front of the Match of the Day cameras – and there was a touch of sentiment to the latest encounter between both sides, courtesy of the first return of former Blades favourite Harry Maguire to Bramall Lane.
Maguire was warmly applauded by Unitedites just before the kick-off, but a robust early challenge on him from Daniel Lafferty soon indicated that the Blades were plainly not interested in laying out the welcome mat for their feted visitors.
It set the tone for an at times uncomfortable first 50 minutes for the visitors, but after Demarai Gray’s relieving 52nd-minute opener, Premier League class told in emphatic fashion as Leicester sauntered to victory, boosted by a three-goal haul in the space of 15 dominant minutes.
Islam Slimani – who looked fortunate to escape a second yellow card shortly before the break after a challenge on Jake Wright – plundered a double as the Blades defence was split asunder.
A swerving shot from Caolan Lavery did reduce the arrears, but the last word belonged to City, thanks to Ahmed Musa’s strike in the third minute of stoppage time on a night when Sheffield-born Jamie Vardy was kept in reserve.
The Foxes, like United, may have made eight changes to their weekend line-up, but it was still a starting side costing some £98m, including three former record signings – and the quality gap was certainly apparent on the restart as the Blades creaked at times.
A cup run is the one glaring omission on Chris Wilder’s Blades CV, with the 49-year-old watching on in his capacity as a fan as the club reached the last four of the FA Cup and Capital One Cup respectively in 2014 and 2015 and no doubt eager for his own fill in his capacity as manager.
Further cup glory will have to remain on hold, as will the club’s quest to enter the record books for a run of successive home victories, which stood at a healthy nine until last night’s events.
With a healthy following from the East Midlands making for a decent cup-tie atmosphere, the pumped-up Blades were suitably energised by the sight of their top-flight opponents, with that message soon reinforced by Lafferty’s challenge.
The hosts had their moments in a watchable first period, but Leicester upped the ante impressively on the restart in the city where they lifted the League Cup in a final replay in 1997.
In his first start on his return to United, Ched Evans’s weak header represented an opportunity missed, while another keen to impress in David Brooks went closer still when his fierce angled strike almost squirmed underneath Ben Hamer and embarrassed the visiting keeper.
With pace in abundance in the shape of Gray and Musa in particular, Leicester stretched the hosts on occasions with some slick build-up play, but the alarms were sporadic.
Musa wasted an early chance when he fired into the side-netting after Slimani’s fine pass, with the visitors’ best moment coming when Ben Chilwell waltzed past several challenges and saw his low strike beaten away by Jake Eastwood.
The Blades looked intent on making life far from straightforward for City in the initial second-half sparings, with Hamer grasping a shot on the turn from the busy Lavery, only for the hosts to be rocked by a visiting opener seven minutes after the break.
Leonardo Ulloa found Gray and he showed nifty footwork to jink past a couple of challenges before coolly slotting the ball underneath the legs of Eastwood for a deft opener.
It was harsh on United with the game then over as a competitive entity on 63 minutes when an excellent probing pass from Andy King dissected the hosts’ defence and Slimani rounded Eastwood and tucked the ball home.
Worse was to arrive when livewire Gray got away down the right, with his low cross converted from close in by Slimani, with Wilder, perhaps in an attempt at damage limitation more than anything else, throwing the experienced duo of Paul Coutts and Chris Basham into the fray.
To their credit, the Blades showed spirit and tenacity to the end, with Lavery’s opportunistic strike yielding a deserved consolation.
But Musa – denied by a brilliant Eastwood parry with the score at 2-0 – got his reward for his persistence at the death, when he fired home high past Eastwood.
Sheffield United: Eastwood; Freeman, Wright (Basham 68), O’Connell; Baldock (Coutts 68), Lundstram, Brooks, Carruthers, Lafferty; Evans (Sharp 62), Lavery. Substitutes unused: Stevens, Basham, Thomas, Sharp, Coutts, Duffy, Blackman.
Leicester City: Hamer; Amartey, Maguire (Knight 81), Fuchs, Chilwell; Musa, Ndidi (Mendy 77), King, Gray; Ulloa, Slimani. Substitutes unused: Jakupovic, Mahrez, Albrighton, Vardy, Okazaki.
Referee: T Harrington (Cleveland).