It wasn’t a good day to be a Manchester City player. They were comprehensively outfought by a Sheffield United side that last week were comprehensively outfought by a Sheffield Wednesday side deep in relegation trouble. To add insult to injury, they returned from their humbling to find their dressing room had been raided by the most brazen of thieves, leaving the squad around £2000 light. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, for Michael Ball there was the additional shame of being nutmegged by a balloon for United’s opener. And that isn’t just a harsh euphemism for the oft-derided Jonathan Stead either.
The Blades came into this game off the back of a humiliating derby defeat, closer to the bottom four than the top six in the Championship, and with manager Bryan Robson under more pressure than Mike Ashley’s belt buckles. Yet they matched their Premier League counterparts for effort and energy in the first half, and even when Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side raised their game after the break, the home defence stood firm enough to seal a second successive top flight scalp, following their 1-0 success at Bolton in round three.
Eriksson will be left bemoaning the lack of a genuine goalscorer in his side, with neither Emile Mpenza nor Darius Vassell looking able to fill a void that has festered since Nicolas Anelka left for Fenerbahce three years ago. It was left to youngster Daniel Sturridge to haul the visitors back into it in the second half, but even his best efforts could not save Sven’s men, who by then were already two goals down thanks to Luton Shelton, Stead, and those pesky balloons.
The City fans had barely finished their first chorus of “Blue Moon” when their side fell behind, on-loan Manchester Utd winger Lee Martin breaking clear down the left and slipping over a low cross that deflected first off Richard Dunne, and then off a number of Blue & White balloons sporting the face of Elano that had littered Joe Hart’s penalty area, Ball was deceived and the ball went through his legs as he attempted to clear, allowing Shelton all the time in the world to sidefoot past Hart from six yards. It was a crazy sight, as Hart spent the next minute angrily stamping on the offending balloons like a spoilt toddler at a birthday party.
City could have been level immediately, Martin Petrov picking out Mpenza with a cross from the left, but the Belgian striker headed tamely over the bar. Elano was next to threaten, driving a left foot shot against the foot of the post from 20 yards, before his free kick was clawed away by Paddy Kenny low to his left. It seemed only a matter of time before there was another goal, and sure enough twenty four minutes in, there was. But it came for Sheffield Utd as Derek Geary broke from right back and crossed for Shelton, who got his feet in a muddle, but the ball broke kindly for Stead to clinically slot past Hart from 12 yards for 2-0.
It was arguably against the run of play, but few could fault the home side’s effort and character, Leigh Bromby denying Petrov what looked a certain goal with a last ditch tackle, whilst Stephen Quinn’s block denied Vassell as the Blades held firm until the break.
Robson will no doubt have told his side to keep it tight for the first ten minutes of the second half against the inevitable City onslaught, but he had reckoned without City introducing their wild card Sturridge for the frustrated Elano. The 19 year old took only two minutes to make an impact, controlling Petrov’s corner before crashing a left foot volley in off the bar from 16 yards for his first senior goal.
It should have been the cue for a siege on the Blades goal, but despite bossing both possession and territory easily, City rarely managed to test Kenny. Indeed it was the home side who began to look increasingly dangerous on the counter attack, Shelton breaking beyond Nedem Onuoha but seeing his shot blocked by Dunne, whilst Quinn headed a Geary cross wide. At the other end Dunne might have done better with a header from a Petrov free kick, whilst Vassell’s low 16 yard strike didn’t cause Kenny too many problems, and sub Geovanni flashed a hopeful effort high and wide as City grew increasingly desperate. Billy Sharp might have sealed the game for United late on when he broke onto Michael Tonge’s pass, but his shot was wild. Despite these missed chances though, the home side negotiated the four added minutes without too much trouble, and were well worth a fifth round spot.
For Robson, it is a much needed boost amid rumblings of discontent within the club, and a home tie with another Premiership side- Middlesbrough. For Eriksson it’s a harsh reminder of the magic of the F.A. Cup, and surely a sign that he needs to get to work in signing a new striker before Thursday’s deadline. The Swede was gracious in defeat, refusing to blame the rogue balloons for the opening goal, although he did reveal that referee Alan Wiley had advised Hart to burst the offending items whilst the ball was in the other half of the pitch. Hart declined, and the balloons remained inflated…..City’s season on the other hand……well that remains to be seen.