Sheffield United send Southampton crashing out of League Cup
Marc McNulty puts Blades into semis as Koeman’s side continue to stutter
Sheffield United’s Marc McNulty is mobbed by team mates after he scored the winner in the Blades’ 1-0 victory over Southamption at Bramhall Lane
Sheffield United 1 Southampton 0
Sheffield United reached their second semi-final in a matter of months after once again belying their league status against top-tier opposition. The elimination of Southampton courtesy of Marc McNulty’s second-half tap-in propelling them into another last-four contest following April’s FA Cup defeat to Hull at Wembley.
United have enjoyed a bountiful period in picking off top-flight sides in knockout competition – having eliminated Aston Villa, Fulham and West Ham this calendar year – and entered this match on a sequence of just two defeats in 17 cup ties under the management of Nigel Clough. Their priority, of course, remains promotion to the Championship and while fixture congestion failed to curb their enthusiasm last season a run of four league games without victory has re-focused ambition for 2014-15.
The arrival of superior opponents to Bramall Lane arguably worked in the Yorkshire club’s favour. All too often, faced with a park-the-bus mentality of their League One peers, they struggle to turn possession and territory into profit – two months have passed since they last scored twice in a match – so the extra space available against a Southampton side who were second in the Premier League less than three weeks ago proved a welcome change.
Not that there was a way through in the opening stages as the visitors, sporting five changes from the weekend’s single-goal defeat to Burnley, got used to switches in both personnel and positions. With the suspended Graziano Pellè and Dusan Tadic – two of the attacking components integral to 11 wins in 12 for Southampton at one stage – absent, Ryan Bertrand was given an advanced role on the left by Ronald Koeman, who also drafted in the England Under-20 captain, Matthew Targett, behind him and recalled Shane Long up front.
When they did penetrate the penalty area it was from an attack down that left side of the Saints as Jamal Campbell-Ryce skipped free and fired in a centre that was scooped up by Fraser Forster after the ball narrowly evaded the lunge of United youngster Louis Reed. Similar trickery from Bob Harris and Jamie Murphy on the other flank earned bookings for Nathaniel Clyne and Sadio Mané in quick succession during a home purple patch just after the half hour mark.
But the first-half pièce de résistance came from the unlikely figure of makeshift centre-back Chris Basham, whose 180 degree spin on halfway triggered a run to the byline. Unfortunately, his composure was not matched by McNulty, who sliced the pull-back wide from 12 yards.
Soon after came a moment of controversy as the already-cautioned Mané appeared to catch the United goalkeeper Mark Howard with a high boot in an aerial challenge. However, the referee Michael Oliver – a late replacement here for Chris Foy, the man criticised by the Hull manager, Steve Bruce, for failing to dismiss Gary Cahill for diving at the weekend – opted to take no further action.
The beginning of the second half signalled greater intent from both teams and the hosts went in front following a flurry of chances: Murphy hacked wide unmarked at the far post, then forced Fraser Forster to claw away his arching delivery through a posse of bodies before Michael Doyle stung the goalkeeper’s palms from the edge of the area.
With the blood up, the home support roared for a penalty just after the hour when Mané felled Reed on the edge of the box. The plea proved futile but United still made good their situation from the free-kick as Harris’s low, drilled effort squirmed from Forster’s grasp and was helped over the line by Scottish striker McNulty.
The reward was commensurate with their effort and the cup specialists should have doubled their advantage midway through the second period but although McNulty broke the offside trap he could not feed his effort around Forster.
Progress to the two-legged semi-finals next month by inflicting a fifth straight defeat on the fallen Saints was deserved too. United dominated from half-time onwards and their goalkeeper Mark Howard only forced into one moment of panic, when he kicked away Mané’s shot as it arrowed towards his right-hand post. Southampton’s misery was compounded in the last minute when Florin Gardos was dismissed for a professional foul on McNulty.