The final break of the season is over and the final run-in has begun. A still-depleted City faced an obdurate Sheffield United side. If they expected a battle, then they weren’t disappointed.
The game started slowly, with both sides seemingly unwilling to take any early risks. Even so, City won a corner after three minutes after good work from Ben Gibson, Josh Sargent and then Adam Idah. The ball was cleared by United and after City lost possession from the subsequent throw, they were able to move forward for their first serious foray.
United were pressing City high at the back, but in the first half, City were able to work around this. Dimi Giannoulis was doing well in some tight situations. City were able to play the ball into space on the left where Idah could come back from an advanced position to claim the ball.
In one such situation, the ball broke for Idah and he played the ball to Teemu Pukki. Unfortunately, it was under-hit. When Pukki wanted to accelerate onto the ball and into space for a shot, he had to check and the momentum of the move was destroyed.
City recycled the ball and Max Aarons made a strong run into the area. He was tripped on his standing foot, but he went to ground so theatrically that he forfeited any right to a penalty.
City were looking solid. The physicality of Sargent was making a difference and City were winning a lot of 50/50 balls in advanced areas. But, as with recent weeks, they truly struggled for any menace in the final third.
Sheffield United began to come more into the match, winning a corner which was struck over everyone and out for a goal kick.
Kenny McLean tried to switch things up with a booming cross-field pass to Marquinhos, who did well to control the ball before winning a throw. Gabriel Sara then won the ball well in the left-back position and played a ball up to Pukki in space. The Finn ran forward but visibly ran out of ideas, electing to run straight into a defender. He didn’t even win the free kick.
Pukki was making some good runs into pockets of space but, usually, he ended up wide of the goal, running out of pitch. Although he was able to cross on occasions, there was no one attacking the posts.
City did win another corner on 25 minutes. Pukki ran in to take it short and teed up Marquinhos for a tricky volley that went high and wide.
It all then got a bit tasty. Baldock gave Pukki a two-handed shove in the back before the ball went out for a throw. Aarons bundled into Baldock as he attempted to block the ball being retrieved for a quick throw. Baldock then tried the same shove on Aarons who went into the hoardings, at which point everyone bundled in.
Straight after this, and the subsequent yellow for Baldock, two or three ‘tasty’ challenges slid in, Sara earning a yellow for his effort. The Brazilian then made another clumsy tackle but the ball broke to Lowe. His cross was headed behind by Gibson for a corner.
As the ball came in from the set piece, Ahmedhodzic rose above Idah and powered a header off the crossbar.
Five minutes later City won a corner of their own, which was again easily dealt with by the United defence.
In the last moments of the half, City finally strung some dangerous passes together in the final third, but Pukki was unable to work them into shooting chances. In the final seconds, City won a corner. Gibson won the flick at the near post but Foderingham was quick to claim the ball.
Honours were even so far, City looking compact and defending well and largely nullifying United, with the exception of the threat from corners. But as the second half got underway, they rapidly reverted to being second best.
Paul Heckingbottom had clearly done his work at halftime and the Blades were now closing down the wide areas that City had used as an outlet. For much of the opening 15 minutes of the second half, City were simply unable to progress the ball up the pitch.
Sargent was using his physical presence well. He battled well with Berge, emerging with the ball and a clear route to goal before Berge bundled him over, taking a yellow card as a result.
Aarons also managed to escape with a swerving run through the middle. He laid it wide to Marquinhos who put in a dangerous cross. Foderingham saved it well but the rebound just dropped away from the waiting Pukki.
But these were the exceptions. City were forced to defend deep but were doing a good job of denying the visitors meaningful chances too. Grant Hanley was beating McBurnie in the air every time and Ndiaye was forced into wide areas to look for the ball.
Around the hour mark, in a rare foray forward, City’s front line aggressively pressed the United defence in an attempt to force an error. Aarons won the ball but a bobble saw him lose it straight away. United broke and Lowe completely miss-hit a shot, deceiving everyone and James McAtee nicked the ball home.
There were only two people in the entire stadium that did not believe McAtee was offside. In real-time he looked a country mile off. On the replay – same.
I was watching in the US and got a VAR-like replay that showed it was a lot closer than it looked. But still offside. No amount of protesting by the City players was going to alter the referee’s mind, but they tried anyway.
David Wagner was forced into changes. Pukki and Idah were withdrawn for Christos Tzolis and for Abu Kamara to make his debut.
Heckingbottom brought on Billy Sharp, who almost immediately had an impact, cutting insider Aarons and curling a shot off the post.
Sargent was leading the line now. He won the ball and embarked on a great run, playing it wide to Marquinhos. He put it back to Aarons before Sargent had a shot that went over the bar.
Sheffield were more than happy to sit back and City lacked the conviction and guile to threaten them. McCallum came on for Giannoulis and played some more dangerous early balls into the box but, otherwise, City seemed unable or unwilling to take a risk.
There were some last-minute theatrics between McLean and Ndiaye, but that was the only entertainment on offer.
In the second half, City looked short on ideas, short on energy and desperately short of any conviction once they got into the final third. They looked compact and defended pretty well, but when they attacked it was too slow and too predictable.
City have the players to fix this but they are all on the treatment table. This squad looks too thin on quality options otherwise and, as a result, it seems the playoff challenge is faltering.