Unlike his good friend Roy Hodgson, Gérard Houllier was allowed to take his team into the third round of the FA Cup despite the fact that Aston Villa occupied a rather lowlier League position than Liverpool and possessed what seems to be a considerably more disunited dressing-room.
Aston Villa kept calm and carried on into the fourth round, although it was not quite as straightforward as the scoreline suggested – especially at the half-time interval. They spent the last quarter of an hour protecting a one-goal lead after Ashley Young had been dismissed for a second bookable offence, and required a spectacularly well-struck goal from Stiliyan Petrov to stifle any thoughts of a replay.
The trouble with upsets is that they never happen when expected. When Kyle Walker, brought in on loan from Tottenham, belied the fact he is a specialist full-back by skating past three defenders to score his first senior goal as early as the ninth minute, one sardonic Yorkshireman sitting in front of the press box turned round to say: "That's ruined your story, hasn't it?"
Houllier, backed by his American owners in a way Hodgson never was by his, did not travel north in the belief that defeat would have been the end. Certainly, there was no evidence of the "electric tensions" that Robert Pires said existed within the dressing room in an interview given toa Monaco radio station – not the most natural outlet for Aston Villa news – for whichhe has apologised.
"I don't think that whatever happened today there would have been a major change," Houllier said. "I feel for Roy. He was manager of the year last season and he is a fantastic person but this world has become brutal. You lose two games and you are in the firing line."
It is 10 years since Houllier led Liverpool to the FA Cup and seven since he last came to Sheffield United – then for a fiercely contested 2-1 defeat in a League Cup semi-final that was overturned in the second leg at Anfield. Frankly, Bramall Lane did not look in the mood for a repetition. Barely 12,000 of the crowd came from the Steel City to see a side who had lost five and drawn one of their previous seven games, conceding 17 times along the way.
Micky Adams may have dreamed about taking the club he represented at junior level to an FA Cup final, but his first major occasion as manager of Sheffield United was soon doused in reality, not least when Marc Albrighton finished Young's low cross with the hunger of a natural-born goalscorer.
Once Jamie Ward had driven his penalty into the dead centre of Brad Friedel's goal, Adams's side began to take risks. There was a fabulous overhead kick from Johnny Ertl but once a shot from Leon Britton – the midfielder, not Margaret Thatcher's former home secretary – was blazed over the bar, the game, and the tie, was up.
Referee: Danny McDermid
Man of the match: Lallana
Match rating: 6/10Reuse content