The Tigers headed for Sheffield looking for a place in the FA Cup quarter finals and also looking to end a dismal run of form at Bramall Lane. The match was a new experience for many of the City fans. Anyone too young to have seen the 3-2 defeat to Liverpool in 1989 was experiencing the FA Cup fifth round for the first time. It was a strong looking City outfit that took the field, though one missing several first choice players, which should easily have been good enough to beat Sheffield United.
Phil Brown made 4 changes from the side that drew at Stamford Bridge last week. Ashbee and Fagan weren't risked; Kilbane was ineligible while the gaffer continued his goalkeeper rotation policy in the FA Cup. City lined up in a 4-4-1-1, Mendy returned from suspension on the right, with Garcia moving to the left to make way. Folan replaced Fagan up front and Myhill returned in goal. Zayatte moved into midfield, allowing Anthony Gardner to return at centre-back. The Tigers strode out onto the field looking confident, lead by Captain Dean Marney, but proceeded to put on a pretty below par performance. In the middle of the pitch, we were out-thought and out-fought by our supposedly inferior opponents. They were first to most loose balls in the middle and did a much better job of getting the ball into the feet of the wide players, particularly David Cotterill, who gave Andy Dawson a torrid afternoon. We had one let off early, when Greg Halford, a centre-half playing up front, found space behind Ricketts on our right and hit a good ball across the box that evaded three on rushing attackers. With their second attack, the Blades took the lead. Cotterill took advantage of a slip by Dawson to hit the bye-line and hang up a terrific cross at the back post, Halford came in on it, pushed Ricketts in the back and headed across Myhill. The referee didn't see it, the linesman was terrified to give anything against Sheff United all afternoon and we were one down in just over 5 minutes.
The response was spirited but lacking in real quality. Folan struggled to impose himself on their defense, Garcia and Zayatte were out of their comfort zone and it showed and Marney was disappointing in his delivery, as he too often is. That left Geovanni and the erratic Mendy as our only attacking threat. When either was in possession, we immediately looked about 1000 times more threatening than we had before. Defensively, we were coping well. Sheffield broke quickly and regularly and our back 4 had to be on their toes. The game was pretty dull, broken up constantly by the referee's whistle and lacking quality in the final third. Mendy saw a yellow card for following through slightly on Paddy Kenny as he tried to block a clearance. In the second half, Halford stuck the boot into Myhill on the floor and suffered no consequence, a pattern that continued for the entire game. How we ended up with three yellows to their total of none is anyone's guess. With ten to play in the first half, we equalised. Ricketts' foray down the right was ended a clumsy foul conceded by Naysmith. Dawson delivered beautifully and Zayatte powered a header past Kenny. Buoyed by the goal, we finished the half strongly. A dipping shot from Geo dropped wide, Kenny hared out of his goal to deny Folan a clear run on goal and Mendy lashed a shot into the side netting (when he should have passed). Just before half time, another Cotterill cross evaded Gardner at the front post and was headed wide by Billy Sharp. Gardner let out a long, slow breath, indicating that he knew it was a close call.
The second half continued in a similar pattern to the first. Barring a 5 minute spell midway through the half, when Mendy and Ricketts combined to force two good saves from Kenny, we struggled to impose ourselves on the game. Our goal was never in any real danger, I don't think Myhill made one diving save all game. We were generally on the back foot though, with the ball not sticking up front and midfield not looking composed in possession. When we released Mendy, we looked a real threat. Disappointingly, we couldn't get him into the game enough. Our best efforts came in the space of a couple of minutes, both from that side. First Mendy cut inside, drawing their defenders, he slid the ball to Ricketts who crossed to the back post where Garcia's header was saved by Kenny. In Garcia's defence, the ball was bout 2 feet off the ground by the time it reached him and he had to stoop to head it. Shortly after, Mendy raced into the box and with everyone expecting a cross, lashed the ball at the near post where Kenny made a fine save. Probably the best chance of the half fell (or didn't fall) to Marney later on. Mendy hit the bye-line again and cut the ball back to the 6 yard line where Marney's perfectly timed run had taken him. As he approached, Manucho took control of the ball and moved away from goal. That was THE chance. We had a penalty shout when Garcia looked to be felled inside the box but that was about it. Phil Brown made three subs in the last quarter without really affecting the game. Manucho gave us some decent presence around the box but France and Barmby may as well have stayed on the bench. As the game petered out, Sheff U looked the more likely to nick it while we strangely seemed to have settled for a replay.
Myhill had little to do in goal. His handling was fine when he was called upon. His kicking was iffy early on, slicing two back passes. Ricketts lost Halford early on for their first chance but didn't do much wrong after that. On the ball, he was too predictable and he didn't support Mendy as often as he should have but delivered our best cross of the game. He was taken out on the touchline twice without been given anything and as pushed for their goal. Dawson was given a bit of a roasting by Cotterill who found a way top get his cross in several times. Daws has dealt well with plenty of top wingers this season but looked second best against today's opponent. Going forward, he wasn't really a factor, never getting into a position from where he could deliver, in open play anyway, his set pieces were decent. Turner was strong and reliable as usual. Gardner looked a bit rusty and limped around a bit after a tough challenge in the first half but looked very good when called upon. He tracked Sharp well, got tight on him and stopped him turning and nicked a lot of the ball of the attackers toe as it dropped into him. He was solid in the air and cool on the ball. He was lacking in some agility and I'd imagine a lot of confidence but he continued his run of being impressive in every game he's played for City, it's just unfortunate that he hasn't played much.
The centre of midfield was a poor area for City. Marney was industrious, always wanted the ball and moved around the pitch well but when in possession, he wasn't good enough. I'm on the list of people who has fancied seeing Zayatte in midfield but it didn't work today. There was some promise, he carried the ball well, particularly on one occasion when he took on their midfield and found himself and Folan 2 on 2 with a pair of defenders before panicking and turning wide. He won the ball in the air well and made some good interceptions. His positioning was very poor though, he wasn't really anywhere in particular. Neither he nor Marney made a tackle in the game; they had to watch Sheff U bypass them. Garcia didn't get into the game at all. Mendy was our best weapon. He's also incredibly frustrating. He has so much to learn. He doesn't react much off the ball. The number of times he stands waiting for the ball instead of going and picking it up is incredible for a pro-footballer. He doesn't seem to have any concept of running off the ball either. When Ricketts had a ball in a good position wide on the right touchline, instead of running inside and taking a defender away, Mendy ran in front of Ricketts, halting the move and taking 2 defenders into a condensed area. His decision making is poor sometimes too such as at the end of the first half when he lashed the ball into the near post side netting from an impossible angle when there where people in the middle and an unmarked Garcia at the far post. He also gave the ball away by trying to nutmeg their full back in our half. For all that, when he's allowed to play the game simply, he can be breathtaking. His pace and ball control is excellent and when he moves at speed and weaves between defenders, it's a terrific sight. The guy is a good wide player; he can be an incredible one.
Up front, Folan was pretty much a non-entity. Partly because the service was poor, partly because he just doesn't possess the physical element needed to play the role. Geovanni looked lively playing off him but didn't get enough of the ball in areas where he could run at them and get shots in. When Manucho came on, we put the ball up to him and Folan and they won their fair share of the ball but there was no-one to pick up on those flicks. We had no one with that explosive 5 yards of pace to get in behind, as evidenced by Barmby's futile attempts to latch onto the balls in behind.
Overall, it wasn't a terrible result, it was better than losing, obviously! It's a hard result on the pocket though, a fifth FA Cup tie already, just to get into the quarter finals. The game showed, just incase anyone is still silly enough to doubt it, just how important Ian Ashbee is to our side. It also showed us just what an asset we have in Anthony Gardner, if we can keep him fit. I'm starting to worry about the long term viability of some of our heroes from last season. Dean Marney and Sam Ricketts in particular seem to be falling off the pace after looking like good Premier League prospects in the spring. It's hard to imagine many more changes falling Caleb Folan's way either. Back to the KC in 11 days time, that's going to be a hell of a week, 3 home games in 6 days. The FA Cup might just be sacrificed, especially if the quarter final draw throws up a tough tie.
Ratings: Myhill 6, Ricketts 6, Dawson 6, Turner 7, Gardner 7, Mendy 7 (France), Garcia 5 (Manucho), Zayatte 5, Marney 5, Geovanni 7 (Barmby), Folan 5.