Sheffield United’s final home match of an incredible first season back in the Premier League ended in defeat to Everton as Richarlison grabbed the game’s only goal early in the second half.
It was a brilliant header from the Brazilian from just inside the penalty area as he guided Gylfi Sigurdsson’s free-kick into the far corner to settle a contest which was short on clear-cut opportunities.
Chris Wilder had been vocal and honest with regards to his disappointment at the manner of the Blades’ 2-0 defeat at Leicester City on Thursday, but named an unchanged side in the hope of rekindling the sort of performance which had seen them win their last three on home turf against Chelsea, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur.
There was plenty of endeavour from his players on a glorious evening in South Yorkshire, but the visitors took the points back to Merseyside with the hosts unable to muster a shot on target – the first time that has happened in a home league game since Wilder’s third match in charge against Southend United in League One back in August 2016.
Just under four years on from that and the stakes were higher than anyone could have dreamed back then: victory against the Toffees would have moved the Blades a point behind Tottenham in sixth and well in with a shout of Europa League qualification going into a final day trip to Southampton.
As it stands now after this setback, those hopes appear slim as they require seventh placed Wolves to lose their final two matches (the first of which is later this evening at home to Crystal Palace) and Chelsea to beat Arsenal in the FA Cup Final.
But perhaps more disappointing than that is the fact that a sell-out home crowd couldn’t be present to give their heroes a standing ovation on the customary end of season lap of honour; almost certainly each and every Blade would have stayed beyond the final whistle to show their appreciation for what has been achieved this season.
The first half of this encounter was one that perhaps needed an injection of noise from the crowd as there was little in the way of goalmouth action.
Everton’s midfield had been overpowered with almost embarrassing ease of late, and the players have faced some stern criticism from supporters, whilst manager Carlo Ancelotti has demanded improvement all over the pitch.
It was quite a statement when the Toffees brought the three-time Champions League winning Italian boss to Goodison Park in December, and he has performed an admirable job to push this side so comfortably clear of any trouble and back up to eleventh after this triumph. This would still represent the club’s joint-lowest finish since 2003/04, but a manager of his calibre will not settle for that next term, and they are in safe hands if he is allowed to begin building a team in his image over the summer.
Everton’s recent performances had been fortunate to draw two points from their last four outings. Having largely played a 4-4-2 since taking charge, Ancelotti opted for a 4-2-3-1 in this one, with Richarlison moved out to the left and Sigurdsson fielded as a number 10. Tom Davies and André Gomes served as holding midfielders, and the latter had perhaps his best game since recovering from a horrific leg break back in November.
He found Dominic Calvert-Lewin midway through the first half with a terrific through ball which would have seen the Everton front man clean through on goal had he not have taken a heavy into the grasp of Dean Henderson.
Boyhood Blade Calvert-Lewin, on something of a homecoming having moved from Bramall Lane to Goodison back in 2016, came closest to breaking the deadlock in the first half when he headed Theo Walcott’s floated cross against the upright after Henderson had punched Sigurdsson’s corner only partially clear.
United’s most promising avenue in the first half was from Ollie Norwood’s set-piece delivery, with a number of dangerous corners and free-kicks defended well by Everton. The visitors’ centre-backs Michael Keane and Jarrad Branthwaite were dominant in the air throughout the match, and special praise should go to the latter on this his first Premier League start. The 18 year old had played only a handful of games for League Two side Carlisle United before joining Everton in January, but aside from misplacing a couple of early passes, he was exemplary and looked right at home at this level.
Shortly after Richarlison netted, David McGoldrick came closest to levelling the scores in the second half: Chris Basham made a fine run from centre-back, and his cut-back found the striker whose low drive was well blocked by Branthwaite.
Everton continued to look a threat at the other end, Jack O’Connell doing well to take the sting out of an effort from Calvert-Lewin, and Gomes firing a long-range strike just wide.
Wilder attempted to change the game from his bench, introducing Billy Sharp, John Fleck and John Lundstram, and changing system for the closing stages of the game by replacing Basham with Richairo Zivkovic.
However as the clash went on it increasingly looked as though one goal was going to be enough to decide it, and that proved to be the case.
Whilst the fairytale of bringing European football to Bramall Lane for the first time now looks unlikely, United have been one of the stories of the season in the Premier League. Wilder is in contention for Manager of the Year, and despite a rare home defeat, they are guaranteed a top half finish which establishes their place back in England’s top tier – an outstanding effort by all involved.
Sheffield United: Henderson; Basham (ZIvkovic 83’), Egan, O’Connell; Baldock, Berge, Norwood (C) (Lundstram 68’), Osborn (Fleck 60’), Stevens; McGoldrick, McBurnie (Sharp 60’). Subs not used: Moore, Jagielka, K. Freeman, J. Robinson, Clarke.
Everton: Pickford; Sidibé, Branthwaite, Keane, Digne; Davies, André Gomes; Walcott (Gordon 84’), Sigurdsson (C) (Coleman 88’), Richarlison; Calvert-Lewin. Subs not used: Stekelenburg, João Virgínia, Baines, Iwobi, Bernard, Baningime, Simms.
Referee: Stuart Attwell
Bookings: Sheffield United: Norwood (45+2’)
Everton: Davies (33’), Calvert-Lewin (78’), Richarlison (90’)
Sent off: Sheffield United: None
Scorers: Sheffield United: None
Everton: Richarlison (46’)
HT score: 0-0
FT score: 0-1
Man of the Match: André Gomes (Everton)