They came, they saw and, after a determined and disciplined display, very nearly conquered.
Sheffield United’s hopes of becoming the first third tier team to lift the Capital One Cup since 1969 remain intact after last night’s semi-final first leg against Tottenham Hotspur ended with Mauricio Pochettino’s side engineering only a slender advantage ahead of Wednesday’s return at Bramall Lane.
The sight of a team containing attacking talents such as Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane prevailing courtesy of a late Andros Townsend penalty underlined the contribution United made to a contest which proved a challenging but not, as some had feared, chastening experience.
Nigel Clough afterwards claimed a victory of sorts having urged his players to ensure that, no matter what else, the tie was still alive ahead of next week’s second instalment. They did and it is.
“We’re still in it and I think the fact we’re disappointed not to have come away with a draw speaks volumes about how well our lads did,” he said. “They gave everything out there, as we knew they would, and very nearly got something even more out of it.
“We know how tough it’s going to be but, the most important thing is that we’ve still got a chance. And a decent one too. That was the very least we wanted to come away with and we’ve done that.”
Pochettino, meanwhile, may yet live to regret his decision not to deploy all of his leading names.AP
United’s remarkable record in knockout competition has not been achieved by accident but, for long periods, Spurs seemed oblivious to the threat they can pose.
“We wanted to keep a clean sheet and score a couple of goals,” Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen said. “We achieved one but not the other. “We didn’t under-estimate them. Sheffield United are just a very good team.
“They tried to play the ball out from the back and are extremely well organised.”
Clough had no complains about referee Neil Swarbrick’s decision punish the otherwise impeccable Jay McEveley for a late handball.
“Jay is gutted in there but we’ll pick him up and he’ll be ready to go again,” Clough said. “Don’t worry about that.
“I don’t think there was any great intent but it did strike his arm and so we can see why it was given. It’s just one of those things I’m afraid.”
Spurs have made pretty serene progress through the competition, beating Brighton, Nottingham Forest and Newcastle while never being drawn away from home. United, by contrast, have taken a much more arduous and convoluted route with visits to Leyton Orient, MK Dons and West Ham culminating in their victory over Southampton just over a month ago.
Facing a starting eleven comprised of seven internationals and costing nearly £60m to build represented the biggest challenge of all.
Nevertheless, despite those formidable figures, it was United who forged the first chance of the game.
Kyle Walker, the Spurs full-back and Redtooth Academy graduate, had admitted to “mixed feelings” about being paired against his former club before kick-off and, with less than 10 minutes gone, was responsible for the scuffed clearance which presented Michael Doyle with a chance he blazed high and wide.
With Jamal Campbell-Ryce, Stefan Scougall and Marc McNulty all demonstrating a willingness to run at the hosts’ defence, United successfully negotiated the opening period Clough warned could hold the key to the contest.
The fact that Spurs, despite breaking with speed and comfortable in possession, did not threaten Mark Howard until midway through the half represented a victory of sorts for the League One club.
Likewise the fact that Campbell-Ryce, not Eriksen or Kane, was threatening to become the most influential figure of the game.
Ben Davies will not have expected his return from injury to prove such an uncomfortable experience as Campbell-Ryce’s trickery ensured he remained firmly on the back foot.
Indeed, Davies was responsible for the mistake which gifted Louis Reed with possession on the edge of the Spurs’ penalty area before Scougall shot wide after receiving the teenager’s square pass.
Until recently, Pochettino was best known for conceding a penalty against England during a World Cup tie in Sapporo. Thirteen years and five clubs later, the Argentine’s name has become synonymous with the rabona and high press.
Emmanuel Adebayor did his best to add ‘right cross’ to the list with a clumsy challenge on Louis Reed which earned the first caution.
Spurs had to wait longer for their first sight of United’s goal with Howard palming Dier’s header to safety after the central defender had met Andros Townsend’s free-kick.
The pair combined again moments before the interval but, as Pochettino’s glum expression proved, United were surpassing both his and his team’s expectations.
Despite the wealth of talent at their disposal, Spurs continued to look laboured.
Chris Basham produced an excellent tackle to stop Adebayor bearing down on goal while Kane remained on the periphery of the game.
United were also finding chances at a premium. But then again, although Jamie Murphy frequently attempted to force the issue, the emphasis was not on them to create.
Pochettino’s decision to introduce Roberto Soldado and Ryan Mason just past the hour was an admission that, from a Spurs’ perspective at least, something had to change.
United’s back four had shown few signs of either physical or mental fatigue until a scrambled passage of play soon after when both Flynn and Jay McEveley struggled to clear from Kane and Eriksen respectively.
But the latter was evident when, with a little over quarter-of-an-hour remaining, handled the ball as, with Soldado in close attendance, he tried to shepherd the ball out of play.
Howard guessed right but was unable to stop Townsend finding the back of the net.
McEveley led the United response but glanced another Reed free-kick wide during the closing stages.
“It’s going to be great occasion at our place,” Clough said. “We’ll be giving everything to try and make that home advantage count.”
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR: Vorm 6, Walker 6, Vertonghen 6, Adebayor 6 (Soldado 64), Dier 7, Townsend 6, Kane 6, Eriksen 6, Stambouli 6 (Paulinho 75), Davies 6, Mason 6 (Dembele 64). Not used: Freidel, |Rose, Kaboul, Lennon.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 7, Harris 7, Basham 7, Flynn 7, Doyle 7, Murphy 7, Scougall 7 (K Wallace 86), McNulty 7 (Baxter 82), McEveley 7, Campbell-Ryce 7, Reed 7. Not used: Turner, Alcock, Higdon, Kennedy, Adams.
REFEREE: Neil Swarbrick (Lancashire)