The scale of their achievements in Capital One Cup competition this season should not be underestimated.
Sheffield United, who accounted for West Ham and Southampton en route to last night’s match at Bramall Lane, summoned another momentous effort but were unable to progress beyond the semi-final stage.
Against a Tottenham Hotspur team two divisions and 47 places above them on the pyramid, Nigel Clough’s side fought like tigers during a second-leg contest which, until Che Adams’ contribution, seemed destined to be settled by two first-half moments.
United, who saw Jamie Murphy go agonisingly close to breaking the deadlock after just 11 minutes, demonstrated the greater courage.
But the visitors, as Christian Eriksen twice underlined, the match winning class. “I’m incredibly proud of the players,” Clough said. “To run opponents like that so close but a little bit of quality told in the end.”
A remarkable journey which started with a home tie against Mansfield Town and included trips to Leyton Orient, MK Dons and Upton Park ended in proud but cruel fashion. However, United should take heart from the fact that neither the scoreline, nor the manner of Spurs’ victory, reflected the gulf in resources enjoyed by these two clubs.
The hosts’ most influential player cost a pittance after graduating from non-league football. Eriksen, £11m.
“Sheffield put us under unbelievable pressure,” Mauricio Pochettino, the Spurs manager said. “But the most important thing is that we went through.”
Although events in London a week ago had encouraged belief that United could complete their mission improbable by reaching Wembley for the second time in two seasons, Clough was aware their failure to score an away goal could cost them dear.
Spurs entered the fixture without a win at this stadium in five outings but emboldened by the knowledge they failed to score in only three of their previous 20 appearances here. United battled manfully but could not stem the tide of history.
Eriksen, described by Clough beforehand as one of the most talented players in the top-flight, lived-up to his billing with a set-piece set to live long in the memories of those who witnessed it. Albeit, depending upon their persuasion, for different reasons.
Likewise Adams’ cameo from the bench. Just two months ago, the 18-year-old was competing against Marine and Nantwich Town. But, having been plucked from the Northern Premier League Premier Division by Clough and his staff, showed no sign of nerves by powering home twice in as many minutes.
“Che is raw but we like what we see,” Clough said. “He’s got so much potential but still, as he showed by celebrating in the corner when we needed another, lots to learn.”
Trailing to Eriksen’s opener, United turned the game on its head when Adams converted crosses from Ryan Flynn and Jamie Murphy before fellow substitute Louis Reed blazed just over the crossbar. Eriksen, though, kept his nerve to strangle their hopes of a comeback when he caressed the ball home from close range.
“It is a big relief,” Eriksen admitted. “They played really well and we had to be at our best.”
Big games are decided by small details and had Kyle Walker not combined with Michel Vorm to deny Murphy and his former club an early goal then the outcome could have been altogether different.
Instead, Eriksen handed Spurs a 2-0 aggregate lead with a perfectly executed free-kick and also control of the tie.
United made only one change to the starting 11 which had frustrated Spurs to such an extent seven days ago that Pochettino, who had subsequently warned his players not to underestimate the threat they posed, selected a squad boasting 419 international caps.
Negotiating safe passage through the opening period had been United’s first target at White Hart Lane and Clough’s preference for Jose Baxter over the talented but inexperienced Louis Reed was designed to ensure they achieved the same again.
Harry Kane forced Bob Harris to hack clear after escaping Jay McEveley’s clutches before testing Mark Howard’s handling with a fierce low drive.
But it was United who created the most glaring opportunity of the opening stages when Walker and Vorm prevented Murphy’s shot from nestling in the back of Spurs’ net after the goalkeeper had spilled Jamal Campbell-Ryce’s cross under pressure from Stefan Scougall.
Given the state-of-play, neither team had particular reason to force the issue. But, swept along by the sense of occasion, they continued to test each others’ resolve in impressively reckless fashion until Eriksen’s delightful technique, after Michael Doyle’s foul on Benjamin Stambouli, cut a swaythe through the machismo in the 28th minute.
Howard, who could only watch as the Dane looped the ball over the wall and into the far corner of his net, denied Kane what would have been a decisive third soon after.
Adams, who replaced Campbell-Ryce, wreaked havoc among the Spurs defence and, after thrashing one shot beyond Vorm, sent a raucous home crowd into raptures when he repeated the feat soon after following some brave work by Michael Higdon. Reed went close but Eriksen ensured it was Spurs, not United, who will face Chelsea on March 1 after profiting from Kane’s through ball.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 7, Harris 7, Basham 7, Flynn 7, Doyle 7 (Reed 64) , Murphy 8, Scougall 7, Baxter 7, McEveley 7, McNulty 7 (Higdon 70, 8), Campbell-Ryce 8 (Adams 70, 8). Not used: Alcock, Turner, Kennedy, K Wallace.
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR: Vorm 6, Walker 7, Vertonghen 8, Lamela 7 (Townsend 70), Dier 7, Kane 8, Dembele 7 (Paulinho 64) , Eriksen 9, Stambouli 7, Davies 7, Mason 8 (Rose 88). Substitutes: Soldado, Adebayor, Fazio, Friedel.
GOALS: Eriksen (28, 88)), Adams (77, 79),
CAUTIONS: Walker (37) Mason (48), Dembele (50), Doyle (44), Flynn (57)