Football: Marcelo's solo balancing act

Coventry City 1 Dublin pen 32 Sheffield United 1 Marcelo 45 Att endance: 23,084
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The Independent Online
SHEFFIELD United had lost a manager. Coventry City had lost the habit of losing. The outcome of yesterday's FA Cup quarter-final tie at Highfield Road seemed inevitable but in a battling game of equal missed chances and surprising equality throughout, only the two goalkeepers Steve Ogrizovic and Alan Kelly finally ensured that the balance stayed intact.

While Kelly's performance was described by Coventry's manager, Gordon Strachan, as "world-class", he could not believe the last-minute save which Ogrizovic achieved to guarantee the replay. The 40-year-old had bungled a clearance well outside the penalty area. The ball rebounded back past him off Petr Katchouro who tried to cut in to exploit an open goal but was caught by Ogrizovic whose tackle after a breathless 30-yard sprint forced the ball on to his own post. "He doesn't go on those runs pre-season," Strachan remarked.

If Ogrizovic overcame the years, United rose above the events of the week. The controversy over Nigel Spackman's departure and his probable return as manager following the resignation of the chairman, Mike McDonald, had centred on Spackman's claim that the selling of Brian Deane and Jan Aage Fjortoft proved that the men in suits had different ambitions from the men in tracksuits. Quite how the club had brought such a crisis upon themselves at the very moment the team had Wembley in sight was baffling.

Coventry, who had just registered a club-record seven successive wins, should have been in a mood to take advantage. But United were surprisingly buoyant, defending solidly and more than matching anything Coventry could create in midfield.

Although sometimes getting the ball forward sufficiently to make Coventry think they were right to have Dion Dublin in central defence, United did lack the drive of Dean Saunders. It was Kelly who kept them in the cup. Some of his saves were worthy of Strachan's high compliments, others simply instinctive. For instance, Noel Whelan headed Roland Nilsson's cross directly at him from not much more than his own shadow's length away and Whelan astonishingly chose to try a flick instead of a blast from the rebound. That miss might have given United hope but there was hardly time for that to sink in before they found themselves a goal down.

Gavin Strachan was busily trying to find holes in the United defence when Nicky Marker decided not to risk a possible intrusion. Marker's tackle took man before ball, giving the referee no choice but to award a penalty which Dublin in effect sidefooted in.

The feeling that Coventry were about to take a proper grip on the game grew on the back of their advantage. Yet United always counter-attacked with spirit and pace. When Marcelo broke strongly on his own it was assumed that Dublin would block his way, but the Brazilian-born striker simply ignored him, sweeping through a tame tackle and hitting the equaliser in off the foot of the post.

Dublin hung his head and, going into the second half, took every opportunity to get upfield and compensate. In the circumstances, with Coventry unable to take prolonged control, that was a gamble - particularly with the enterprise of Marcelo who looked capable of troubling a more natural defender than Dublin.

Coventry had to rely heavily on Huckerby's often directionless speed while Viorel Moldovan was dominated by Lee Sandford, six inches taller and several milliseconds quicker in his reactions. Predictably, Coventry eventually moved David Burrows to the centre of defence and sent Dublin to the frontline. The rearrangement made little significant difference in finishing quality, merely keeping United locked in the last third of the field. But Kelly was called on one last time when, with three minutes left, he brilliantly threw himself across goal to deny Gary Breen's header. But in the end even he was upstaged by Ogrizovic.

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