SHEFFIELD EAGLES paraded the Rugby League Cup round Bramall Lane before the start of this First Division play-off semi-final first leg, and for almost an hour it looked as though that would be the closest Blades fans would come to Wembley success in a frustrating season.
It may still take a performance as brave as the Eagles' victory over Wigan to preserve this slender lead in the face of Sunderland's fanatical support in the Stadium of Light on Wednesday. But a superb 30-yard free- kick from Greek full-back Vass Borbokis, who also scored in their victory over Sunderland on the opening day, means they can at least travel hopefully.
Their caretaker manager, Steve Thompson, said: "It took us 45 minutes to acclimatise, but after that it was a superb performance. We have the ability and passion to beat them."
The Sunderland manager, Peter Reid, was less happy. "We went about the job quite well for 57 minutes, then made elementary mistakes we paid the penalty for," he said. "But in our own stadium we are a good side and I think we are favourites."
Things started badly for United when their striker Gareth Taylor was taken off on a stretcher after a 10th-minute challenge by Nicky Summerbee. But Sunderland were already looking the better side and Daniele Dichio shaved a post with a close-range header from Lee Clark's cross.
He atoned for the miss moments later, profiting from a slip by Borbokis to release Allan Johnson down the left. Kevin Phillips nodded the cross back to Kevin Ball, who beat Simon Tracey with a left-foot volley from just inside the penalty area.
Sunderland should have put the issue beyond doubt early in the second half but Summerbee miscued after Dichio set him up. Then the Blades, whose neat one-touch football had scarcely produced a chance, finally found their cutting edge.
Lionel Perez had to race off his line to deny Wayne Quinn after a neat move between Paul Devlin and the Brazilian Marcelo. But the resulting corner evaded both the goalkeeper and his fellow defenders, to give Marcelo a simple tap-in on the line.
United's revival was mainly due to the growing influence of Dean Saunders, whose opportunist 30-yard shot beat Perez and flashed narrowly wide. But when the Sunderland substitute Alex Rae conceded a free-kick at similar distance, the goalkeeper was not so lucky.
Quinn stepped over the ball and Borbokis flighted his kick over Perez into the far corner of the net.
United continued to dominate, but the nearest they came to securing the two-goal lead Thompson had told them they needed to take to Wearside was another neat move between Marcelo and Saunders which ended with the latter having the ball whipped off his toe at the last moment.
Unless Sheffield are on their mettle on Wednesday the FA Cup semi-finalists' season may end in anticlimax.
Goals: Ball (16) 0-1; Marcelo (57) 1-1; Borbokis (75) 2-1.
Sheffield United: (3-4-1-2): Tracey; Sandford, Holdworth, Marker; Borbokis, Hamilton, Ford, Quinn; Saunders; Devlin, Taylor (Marcelo, 10). Substitutes not used: Morris, Dellas.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Perez; Holloway (Rae, 67), Craddock, Summerbee, Makin (Ord h-t); Clark, Williams, Ball, Johnston; Dichio, Phillips. Substitute not used: Bridges.
Referee: C. Wilkes (Gloucester).
Bookings: United: Borbokis, Marker, Quinn.
Sunderland: Williams, Ball, Summerbee.
Man of the match: Saunders.
Attendance: 23,800.Reuse content