Sheffield United 2-2 Tottenham Hotspur
This time it was one step too far for Nigel Clough and the Sheffield United players who have established themselves as most prolific set of giantkillers in the country. They certainly gave Tottenham Hotspur an almighty scare when an 18-year-old substitute by the name of Che Adams, plucked from Ilkeston Town a few months ago, scored twice within five minutes of coming on the pitch, but overall there can be no doubt that Tottenham were the better side and deserve their place in the final.
Mauricio Pochettino’s played as though affronted by any suggestion that they might be vulnerable on a night when they also had to contend with blizzards and hailstones. Christian Eriksen’s first-half goal, direct from a free-kick, was a thing of beauty and it was the same player who provided the game’s late and decisive moment just as it looked as though Adams’s heroics was going to take this semi-final into extra-time.
Eriksen's extra touch of class means Tottenham can start preparing to face Chelsea at Wembley on March 1st but Clough's men can take great dignity from an aggregate defeat of only 3-2.
It has been an epic run and they quickly set about showing the fearlessness that has been instrumental every time they have chopped down a team from the top division. The common theme to those victories against West Ham United, Southampton and QPR during the current campaign, to go with the ones against Aston Villa and Fulham last season, has been their blunt refusal to be even slightly starstruck and, again, they set out here in a way that suggested they wanted to ram home that point.
There was great noise at Bramall Lane during those early moments and Clough will wonder how the night might have panned out had Jamie Murphy made the most of his chance when Michel Vorm fumbled a cross from Jamal Campbell-Ryce after nine minutes. Yet Vorm recovered and it was from that moment onwards that the natural order was restored. Spurs always had the more refinement on the ball and the cold, harsh reality for the team from ninth position in League One is that the third tier of English football does not often see the kind of sumptuous dead-ball finishes that Eriksen delivered after 27 minutes.
To put it into perspective, Eriksen was in a position close to the angle of the penalty area where most players would not have even considered it was realistic to take aim. What followed was an extraordinary demonstration of how to control the ball with speed, power and just the right amount of bend. Eriksen struck the shot with plenty of zip but it was the way the ball swerved and dipped at the last moment, with the deception of the trajectory, that left Mark Howard almost motionless on his goalline.
Howard, to give him his due, was probably not the only person to think the shot was initially going to fly into the stand before that sudden change of direction and the sound of ball against woodwork, at the point of angle between post and crossbar. Eriksen has a collection of wonderfully taken goals to his name this season but this was arguably the best of the lot.
The home team took a long while to shake their heads clear and by half-time Spurs had had enough of the ball inside the opposition half to feel they could have been in an even more commanding position. Harry Kane was a difficult opponent with his tendency to drop off and run into channels and Clough must have been alarmed by the way his team suddenly looked like a side that was from a couple of divisions below.
Their early momentum had been lost and Pochettino’s side had started to knock the ball around with the kind of time and assurance that Clough’s teams have denied previous opponents.
Eriksen made a stylish contribution with his ability to drift in from the left side of attack. Erik Lamela and Mousa Dembélé dovetailed nicely in the space behind Kane and the more defence-minded midfielders, Ryan Mason and Benjamin Stambouli, made sure there could never be any accusation that Spurs were outworked in midfield.
Vorm’s early lapse might have encouraged the home side to suspect Tottenham’s goalkeeper might be vulnerable but he was barely troubled again for the next hour. It was not a lack of application from Clough’s team but the absence of real quality and maybe for the first time an element of self-doubt, too.
All the elements were here for the traditional shock, with the rutted pitch, the freezing temperatures and a partisan crowd, but Spurs had emphatically made it clear they were not going to wilt. They had brought terrific support from north London and the second half was played out with an air of inevitability until that remarkable burst of action that saw Adams turn in an inviting cross from Ryan Flynn and then three minutes later let fly with his right foot and benefit from a deflection off Eric Dier to wrong-foot Vorm.
Incredibly, another substitute, Louis Reed, had the chance a few minutes later to score again but put his shot over the bar. There have been Tottenham sides of old who might have buckled at that point but not this one. After 88 minutes, Eriksen ran though the middle, kept his nerve and beat Howard from eight yards.