Optimism quietly rises

Scoreless draws take a few forms. The one in Lancashire midweek was a poor example of the genre, while yesterday’s Yorkshire derby was a stalemate at it’s best.

This was despite only one save of note being made by the keepers and genuine chances being at a premium; it was the spectacle of two pretty decent teams going toe to toe for a win which created an edge of the seat drama right through to injury time.

With both teams in form – though the much nicer Sheffield club’s rise up the table has been built on wins while Town’s admirable unbeaten run has relied on resilience and draws – a tight contest was expected, in which the visitors began as favourites.

Carlos Corberán sprung some selection surprises with the inclusion of Russell in midfield and Ruffles at left back in place of Toffolo. The former had thrilled and intrigued supporters in the cup against Barnsley, though some remained sceptical about his pace and ability to compete against the better midfields in this division, while Ruffles’ elevation over a pretty subdued incumbent has possibly been too long coming.

Russell, whose languid style is at once thrilling and alarming, produced a first class, if not flawless, Championship debut and would have celebrated his arrival with a goal but for the incompetence of officials who incorrectly interpreted a tussle in the 6 yard box which should’ve been a penalty, not the cause of disallowing Russell’s excellent header.

Not long afterwards, United appeared to illegally prevent Russell meeting another corner. 

The referee, who had a very poor first half with both the big decisions and the more mundane ones, which included leaving unpunished a ridiculous number of niggly and cynical fouls by the Blades in the opening 15 minutes, managed to balance out the generous calls Town have had over the past few weeks.

It was unfortunate for Berge to collect the booking his team deserved, but the overdue caution settled things down and the game was all the better for it.

An excellent start by the hosts yielded too little threat with a tame Ward header from a difficult angle and a wild shot from Pipa being the meagre return for some otherwise enterprising play.

Once the Blades stopped infringing and started playing, their quality began to emerge and a dominant 10 minutes rather unsettled Town who found it difficult to gain possession and gave it away cheaply when they did. However, and like their hosts, United were unable to turn superiority in to genuine chances.

The pendulum swung back in Town’s favour once they got to grips with United’s surge and it was noticeable that this followed O’Brien giving Russell some forceful positioning advice as the debutant’s defensive inexperience had been a little exposed.

Getting back on the front foot, Town put together some decent combinations to create some shooting opportunities for Ward but the top scorer failed to connect with one effort and hit the other tamely wide.

Down the left, Ruffels was having an excellent Championship full debut, attacking with energy and defending well against Sheffield’s dangerous right side. Sadly, his left side partner, Koroma, was not up to speed and wasted good attacks with poor choices; a failure which was to recur badly in the second half.

It was Ruffels who won the corner from which Russell scored the disallowed effort. An excellent Thomas delivery was superbly met by the soaring debutant only for the nonsense on the line – Baldock wrestled Ward to the ground and Fotheringham fell over him – to be misinterpreted by the referee, linesman or fourth official (or a combination of the 3). The referee was clearly happy with the goal and allowed celebrations to go on longer than it usually takes to dawn.

Doubly annoying as it was, a goal for Russell would have capped a very good first half, Town haven’t much room to complain about referee decisions recently, though this looked entirely like a cop out for officials unsure what had happened on the line.

To their credit, Town didn’t collectively sulk and finished the half strongly with intent and a flurry of corners. They had been the better side and more than unfortunate to be going in level.

The second half proved to be much more even as the Blades’ quality came more to the fore. Berge, in particular, saw more of the ball though perhaps more could be expected of a clearly talented player than neat, tidy and very safe passing. 

It was Town, however, who should have made much more of an excellent break with United found short at the back. No fewer than 3 players gave Koroma options to left and right only for the out of form winger to lose the ball to an outnumbered defender.

A rare poor ball from Hogg, who is looking far more like the influence he is in the past two games, saw Russell robbed midway in his own half which allowed United to break. A rare opportunity for McBurnie saw him loop a header towards goal, but the attempt was comfortably gathered by Nicholls, who also saved a reasonable Berge effort minutes later.

For Town, Pipa and Thomas were combining well down the right to cause the visitors’ problems but the openings were always thwarted by good defending. The combination, however, augurs well for the final run in.

Koroma was finally, and mercifully, replaced by Holmes just after the hour and the Anglo-American made a big difference with a performance brimming with energy and intent, in stark contrast to his midweek efforts.

The awkward McBurnie’s elbow found the face of his captor, Matt Pearson. Town’s central defenders, augmented out of possession by Hogg, were excellent throughout and Sharp was similarly subdued by Lees with an off target shot his only contribution of note.

By this point, Russell’s vision and range of passing came to the fore. He regularly released his colleagues down right and left with perfectly weighted balls, some of which were things of beauty.

As the last 10 loomed, Corberán tried to make changes to win the game and replaced the excellent Ruffles with Sinani, but the adjacent decision to move O’Brien to left back, which had unwelcome echoes of last season’s campaign, took a while to be exposed and Toffolo, rather than the original choice of Rhodes, was chosen to replace Ward and get O’Brien back in midfield.

The confusion very nearly became a catastrophe when Toffolo made a complete hash of a routine clearance and presented the Blades with an opportunity they rather wasted.

Another penalty shout, this time from Pipa who went down under a double challenge, looked optimistic in real time but pretty conclusive on replay. At the other end, Pipa gave away a needless corner which nearly resulted in a late winner for the South Yorkshire men.

A practised routine found Fleck unmarked just outside the box and the Scotsman caught the ball very sweetly. Nicholls saw it through a crowd of players and finger tipped it on to the post and then off his leg for a corner. A wonderful save from possibly the player of the season so far. It preserved his 14th clean sheet, and it is testament to his abilities that those are all founded on his mastery of the basic goalkeeping skills which he carries out with supreme simplicity. Throughout this derby, his confident, calm collection of crosses, headers and any other threats was massively influential.

A Russell header, easily saved by Fotheringham was Town’s last attempt for a winner and an absorbing, entertaining encounter came to a close.

Both clubs remain in contention for a play off position and, from a Town perspective, it was gratifying to equal a very good Blades outfit. The return of Colwill, the intriguing arrival of Anjorin and the emergence of competition in midfield and at left back could prove crucial in the imminent run in. 

Maybe this squad can avoid ritual humiliation at Craven Cottage next week or even better. After all, they have got to 50 points before Valentine’s Day and secured Championship status far earlier than many, or any, of us believed in August.

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