Football / FA Cup: Blades' bliss as United miss penalty

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Sheffield United . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2

Manchester United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

A LAUDABLE attempt by Alex Ferguson to entertain us all by taking England's two major trophies by storm ended in Sheffield jubilation as the Premier League favourites fell disappointingly out of the FA Cup yesterday.

Sheffield United's ownership may be decided in court this week but whoever sits around their boardroom table will have, after a season in fear of relegation, tickets for the quarter-final at Blackburn in their pockets.

It was a heartbreaking afternoon for Manchester. They overcame the handicap of their new yellow and green shirts with a fine attacking display, but two body blows to a soft underbelly and Steve Bruce's failure to convert a late penalty award mean that Ferguson will no longer be concerned over a choice of targets.

Eric Cantona's absence with France meant that Ferguson could have opted to strengthen his midfield; he elected to continue attacking by choosing Kanchelskis, Sharpe and Giggs, all natural flank players, a decision that needed goals to be justified. He would happily have settled for a

3-2 win but from a dozen chances only one goal ensued.

There were times when the central area was totally without a Manchester shirt just as there were times when Sheffield had men there to spare as Paul Ince was either up with the attack or deep in defence. Sometimes United's harassed back four were outnumbered almost two to one with Brian McClair and Sharpe little more than bystanders.

Yet for the Sheffield manager, Dave Bassett, who in recent weeks has been pointing out what relegation would mean to a club as financially vulnerable as his, this victory was a tactical triumph.

At Old Trafford eight days previously, when Manchester won 2-1, he played five men at the back with two destroyers in midfield. Manchester might have been expecting something similar which would explain their selection, but Bassett played 4-3-3 with Franz Carr and Brian Deane switching flanks regularly and confusingly. Sheffield operated as a coiled spring: when Manchester had possession there were never less than eight men in front of their goalkeeper, Alan Kelly. When Sheffield won the ball, they broke so quickly from a near empty midfield that a counter- strike was always probable.

The first half alone had enough incidents for two Cup ties. Manchester forced six corners, had two appeals for a penalty (neither frivolous), rejected, while Giggs ran riot. He fired just wide, he headed over and on the half hour he scored a peach of a goal: McClair's short volley sent him wide, he escaped Paul Beesley's challenge and beat Kelly's dive with a beautifully angled shot. Up to that point, all Sheffield had managed was Mitch Ward's well-struck free-kick, tipped over by Peter Schmeichel.

Three minutes later, however, Sheffield, to the stunned delight of Bramall Lane, were level. Glyn Hodges's free-kick dropped for the unmarked Jamie Hoyland to dart through and exploit Schmeichel's failure to grasp the ball.

The Manchester end was still shaking heads when, five minutes before the interval, two head-ons down the middle left Hodges clear and, with Schmeichel half-advanced, Manchester were exposed again by a deft finishing lob. Carr, amid disarray, should have ended the contest before half-time.

The second half was not dissimilar. Giggs, having left Kelly stranded on the edge of the box, floated the ball across a goalmouth empty of a welcoming Manchester shirt. Yet, on Sheffield's next free-kick, two Blades were running in unmarked on Schmeichel's far post. Brian Deane robbed a nervous Gary Pallister and fired wide.

Then Mark Hughes headed an inch past, Sheffield managed to make a hash of a 4-2 advantage in the penalty area and, with five minutes left, Ince, was pulled off the ball running in to the box. Bruce struck the penalty firmly, but although his shot eluded Kelly, it deflected away off the outside of the post.

Ferguson was predictably terse afterwards. After withdrawing Giggs from Wales's friendly with the Republic of Ireland in midweek, he said: 'Sheffield United fought very hard and deserved this success, as does their manager.'

Sheffield United: Kelly; Ward, Cowan, Hoyland, Gayle, Beesley, Carr (Littlejohn, 88), Hartfield, Bryson, Deane, Hodges. Substitute not used: Bradshaw.

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Sharpe, Pallister, Kanchelskis, Ince, McClair, Hughes, Giggs. Substitutes not used: Carey, Phelan.

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).

Reports, results, page 26