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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Perhaps it counts as a little turbulence on the journey from Championship to Champions League, perhaps a hint that those who have come from the depths of the lower divisions might not be competing with the European elite after all.
Whichever, after the possibility emerged that fifth place may bring Champions League football, Sheffield United stuttered, stumbled and stayed in sixth.
It is, though, a sign of the progress they have made that reaching 40 points with three months of the campaign to go brought frustration, not celebration.
“There is a very slight tinge of disappointment,” manager Chris Wilder said after two points were dropped against Brighton, now the only one of the 91 Premier and Football League clubs without a win in any competition in 2020.
As United’s fixture list is back-loaded with meetings with top-half teams so the more winnable games such as this acquire more importance if unlikely ambitions are to be realised.
But, as Wilder noted, it is “one defeat in 18, taking Man City and Liverpool out.” He may be sufficiently unknown that a man conducting a survey on behalf of the Premier League sought to poll him as he jogged into Bramall Lane, little realising he is the manager of a top-six side, but his peers recognise the job he is doing.
As Graham Potter, who can only dream of reaching the milestone himself, said: “The fact they have 40 points is amazing; massive congratulations for that.”
Potter’s Albion ground out their third consecutive draw, nudging further away from the relegation zone with the aid of goalkeeper Mat Ryan, who made two fine saves from Oli McBurnie; the second, when the Scotland striker got a slight touch to substitute David McGoldrick’s inviting cross, was especially good.
Unlucky then, United may have been fortunate when another replacement John Lundstram escaped a red card after planting his studs into Lewis Dunk’s knee.
A point apiece felt fair, though, but it was instructive that Potter sought to snuff out United by showing imitation can be the sincerest form of flattery, aping their 3-5-2 tactics, his phalanx of giant centre-backs heading away a series of crosses and providing a set-piece threat.
And, barring a four-minute exchange of goals, they cancelled each other out. First Enda Stevens rifled an irresistible, unstoppable shot into the top corner.
“A decent goal,” said Wilder. “If he had another shirt on and played for a more glamorous club, people would be looking at that all over the weekend.”
The Irish wing-back is an emblematic figure, a man who was dropped by Wilder when on loan with his Northampton team in League Two but has made remarkable progress. Yet United missed him when he went off at half-time. They had lost their lead rather earlier.
It was uncharacteristically poor defending from the side who had conceded the second fewest goals in the division.
Neal Maupay’s first goal in 660 minutes of football came with a glancing header after Adam Webster had headed on Aaron Mooy’s free kick. “You can’t do anything when they have got five or six 6ft 4in lads,” said Wilder, though he rued the fact Maupay was a transfer target to elude him last summer.
Suitably buoyed, Maupay later attempted an audacious effort that skimmed the roof of the net. Albion were obdurate and organised, benefiting from Yves Bissouma’s considerable running power in midfield. “Credit to the Brighton boys,” said Wilder. “People think they are soft. I didn’t see that: I saw blocks, tackles, a full-blooded encounter.”
His own side were below their best but Wilder said: “The players couldn’t have given anything more.” But McBurnie and Billy Sharp miscued shots. John Fleck managed a rather sweeter connection but hit the advertising hoardings. The midfielder had begun the day by signing a contract extension to 2023.
He is a rare United player with continental experience after playing in the Europa League with Rangers. He may yet revisit the competition with the Blades.
Updated: February 22, 2020 10:06 PM
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