United bowed out of the FA Cup in the third round as the Blades proved just a little too sharp at the Kassam Stadium this afternoon. Two quality deliveries from set-pieces and a deadly strike for a third goal sent Sheffield United into the draw for the next round although they were pushed all the way by the hard working U's.
With James Constable suspended and Lee Cox having returned to parent club Swindon there were two enforced changed with new signing Justin Richards starting up front and Simon Heslop replacing Cox in midfield. The other change meant Tony Capaldi stepping forward to play on the left of midfield, from where much of the early crosses came into the Sheffield United box.
At the other end some brave defending from the superb Jake Wright meant a clash of heads with the Blades’ Matt Hill which left the left back unable to continue after ten minutes, while Leven, Heslop and Craddock all sent speculative efforts into the car park from the edge of the box in the first fifteen minutes.
The visitors had hardly had a sniff of goal but were to take the lead on 17 minutes from a free kick on the edge of the area. Jamie Murphy ran at the defence at pace from deep and then went to his right and went over as Jake Wright tried to halt his progress. Referee Carl Boyeson awarded a free kick right on the edge of the area and right back Tony McMahon showed real quality to curl the dead ball over the wall and into the top left corner with Ryan Clarke for once beaten all ends up.
At Bramall Lane two rounds earlier in the same competition last season a similar early goal seemed to leave United dispirited, but this time they came back strong and a quick throw from Capaldi sent Tom Craddock away in the 21st minute to test visiting keeper George Long for the first time with a near post effort which he palmed away for a corner.
Craddock did show alertness to back heel the ball into the empty net after an accidental collision with Long on half time, the effort ruled out for a foul, but it showed that United were still in the game with Craddock to the fore, Richards causing problems and Potter’s twisting runs keeping the Blades on their toes as we reached the break.
The U’s came out of the blocks quickly in the second half and showed no signs of being overawed by their higher league opponents. A clever knock down from Craddock allowed Richards a sight at goal after 55 minutes but the on-loan Burton forward took too long and then lifted his effort high and wide. Potter saw a decent effort from the edge of the box held by Long just before the hour and the boys in yellow were looking lively.
The dividing line between the team was far less evident than last year, but on 68 minutes was perfectly demonstrated as Ryan Flynn fired in an undefendable free kick from the left. Nick Blackman had worked space cleverly and headed back across goal for Dave Kitson to bundle the ball in from three yards out for a well worked goal that made it 2-0.
There was little to choose between the sides in terms of possession and you could not fault anyone in yellow for commitment and effort but the Blades had been that bit more clinical and United could find no way through despite a good strike from sub Sean Rigg testing Long down to his right and Craddock dragging an 80th minute shot across the face of goal and only six inches wide of the far post.
With four minutes to go the game was up as Kevin McDonald's accurate through ball split the home defence and allowed Blackman to thump a fine half volley beyond Clarke and into the roof of the net to make it 3-0 and ensure that it is Sheffield United who will be number 19 in the fourth round draw.
No shame in losing to one of the best sides from the division above and United now fight on on two fronts. The first of those comes on Tuesday night as they welcome Southend in the semi-final of the JPT. A more realistic Wembley dream lives on once they get over the disappointment of losing this one.
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Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Steve Daniels, stats by PA Sports