A spirited Sheffield United performance was not enough to get the better of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, as a Sergio Aguero goal proved the difference at Bramall Lane on Tuesday evening.
It was a special occasion under the lights at Bramall Lane, as the reigning Premier League champions came to town. It was the kind of fixture Sheffield United fans could’ve only dreamt of a few years ago as they played in League One, a chance to see their heroes go toe to toe with some of the world’s best.
But make no mistake, United did not role out the red carpet for the visitors.
In what was a hard-fought contest, United gave as good as they got throughout. In fact, the first chance of the evening fell the home side’s way six minutes in, as a smart no-look flick from Oli McBurnie set Billy Sharp in behind Aymeric Laporte.
Perhaps short of match fitness after a lengthy injury layoff, the Frenchman would’ve been disappointed had it resulted in a goal, but Sharp was unable to find any red shirts with his low ball into the box.
With this chance fashioned out of nothing, Chris Wilder’s side signalled their intent. They weren’t prepared to sit off City and let them do as they please.
But of course, it was near impossible to deny a side of City’s quality chances. Twenty minutes in the usually solid Jack O’Connell committed what is a cardinal sin when playing Manchester City. He cheaply gave the ball away 30 yards from goal, prompting Raheem Sterling to break at pace.
The England star played a give and go with Gabriel Jesus, before brushing the ball towards goal from six yards out.
Everyone expected the net to ripple, except Dean Henderson; the young keeper heroically stuck out a big right hand to palm the ball to safety.
Almost immediately the visitors had another great chance, this time Henderson thwarting Nicolas Otamendi’s spectacular overhead kick after the Argentine found himself unmarked after a corner.
However, it certainly wasn’t all way traffic in terms of goalmouth action.
Throughout the first half McBurnie made a nuisance of himself, constantly loitering in front of Fernandinho and Otamendi, wining most of the aerial battles as the South Americans struggled to bridge the height difference.
On a couple of occasions United threatened from set piece situations, but Guardiola’s side dealt with them albeit a little shakily.
Then came the best chance of the opening 45 minutes. In typical style, City pressed and won back the ball, setting up a counter-attack led by the penetrative Riyad Mahrez.
The Algerian somehow wormed his way past Stevens and Egan, before the wayward boot of Chris Basham, who was making his 251st Blades appearance, sent him tumbling to the turf. Penalty to the visitors.
However, as was the case with City’s two previous golden chances, Henderson came to the rescue. The English keeper dived to his right to keep out Jesus’ penalty, cueing scenes of delirium in the Kop behind him. It was a moment to forget for the Brazilian striker, the latest in his growing collection of spot-kick misses this season.
The second half started much like the first ended, with City dominating possession and looking dangerous whenever near United’s box.
United continued to break from defence whenever City lost the ball in attack but City still saw the better chances.
First Rodrigo went close with a flicked header which fell just wide, before Henderson pulled off another decent stop, holding on to Jesus’ guided header, bound for the far corner.
Soon after the Blades missed two opportunities of their own. First substitute Mousset saw his cheeky backheel gladly collected by Ederson, before McBurnie went agonisingly close to converting Stevens’ pull back across goal.
Then, ten minutes after coming off the bench, Sergio Aguero broke the deadlock.
It was a goal straight out of the Guardiola playbook of effortless looking manoeuvres. Sterling played the ball out to Kevin De Bruyne on the right of the area, who then slid an inch perfect ball across the six-yard box to Aguero, just out of reach of the despairing defenders. The Argentine duly tapped home his 252nd Premier League goal, as De Bruyne notched his 15th assist of the campaign.
With five minutes to go, Sterling came within inches of doubling his side’s lead, but he could only stab wide of the post after slaloming his way to the six-yard line.
As proceedings neared a close United’s efforts to find an equaliser continued, although the hopeful balls forward left them open to the City counter-attack.
At the death the Blades had one final chance, as Norwood chipped a late freekick up to the back post, but it came to nothing. The home side had huffed and puffed, more than holding their own, but in the end, City came out on top.
The defeat means United will drop to eighth in the table if Tottenham Hotspur beat Norwich City on Wednesday, while Manchester City remain second.
After the game, Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder admitted he was pleased with his side’s performance.
“We’ve got to be pleased with our performances here tonight and at the Etihad a few weeks ago. They had the best chances and dominated the possession, but we made it really tight and competitive.
“[Dean Henderson] was always going to have to play well. He was outstanding. His kicking was brilliant and his positional play was great. I tell you what, England must have some great goalkeepers if they’re getting picked ahead of him. He’s still very young, and the quicker he learns the better he’s going to be. Since his error against Liverpool [earlier in the season] he’s shown great character and ability to bounce back”.
On facing Manchester City twice in the past month, Wilder said: “It’s been a great learning experience for us, for the players and me and my backroom team. But we don’t fear the bigger clubs, we’re going to go after them.”
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola was full of praise for centre back Aymeric Laporte, who returned to action after a long injury stint. He said: “He has something that we don’t otherwise have in the squad. For me he is the best left-sided centre back in the world. He has all the attributes you need in a defender”.
On Jesus’ latest penalty miss, he said: “I always trust the players to decide if they want to take a penalty. But I have someone in mind who I would like to take them.”
“Ederson is the best penalty taker we have. He doesn’t have blood in his veins, he is so calm!”
Sheffield United: Henderson, Baldock, Stevens, Fleck, O’Connell, Basham (Robinson, 77’), McBurnie, Sharp (c) (Mousset, 59’), Egan, Norwood, Bešić (Lundstram, 77’)
Unused subs: Jagielka, Freeman, Verrips, Osborn
Bookings: Fleck, Norwood, McBurnie, Bešić
Manchester City: Ederson, Walker, Sterling (Bernardo Silva, 90’), Jesus (Agüero, 67’), Zinchenko, Laporte (Garcia, 77’), Rodrigo, De Bruyne, Fernandinho (c), Mahrez, Otamendi
Unused subs: Bravo, Gündoğan, Cancelo, Foden
Bookings: Fernandinho, Rodrigo, Agüero
Referee: Lee Mason
Man of the match: Dean Henderson