“It’s not a cup tie, we’ve earned the right to play in the Premier League,” said Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder after watching his team stage a sensational second-half recovery which stunned home fans at Stamford Bridge.
As dramatic as the turnaround was, to seasoned Blades observers the way they went about their work wasn’t entirely unexpected. I warned a Chelsea-supporting pal outside a pub in Parsons Green before the match to beware if United fell behind. So it came to pass.
Repeatedly this season the Blades appear to have started with a degree of apprehension which eventually dilutes and we’re left with the Sheffield United we know and love. This was again self evident at Chelsea. Viewed from The Shed, the first half could have passed for a cup tie – Premier League versus Championship punctuated by uncharacteristic errors at the back worthy of the Keystone Cops.
Chelsea, like United with one victory in this campaign, weren’t that good, a work in progress for new manager Frank Lampard. A living legend as a player at Stamford Bridge who is still waiting for his first home win in the hot-seat.
Even so, The Blues oozed individual quality if lacking balance and a collectiveness. Paradoxically, United were well drilled and full of energy, but their lack of top flight quality, at times stuck out like a sore thumb during the first half.
Having said that they were undone needlessly. First goalkeeper Dean Henderson failed to catch the ball at midriff height, instead propelling it meekly forward for Tammy Abraham to score the first of his two goals. Then Jack O’Connell and John Egan collided in an attempt to head the ball and Abraham pounced again.
“I sometimes believe in the players more than they do,” said Wilder. “Hopefully that will give them a major boost because we’ve gone toe-to-toe with a really good side.”
Therein lies the key to what will shape United’s season. Belief. It’s perfectly understandable that whatever the bullish pre-match rhetoric, players taking a giant step up into the high-profile glare of a world they’ve not experienced, is daunting.
United are four matches into the season and have done enough to suggest they are more than capable of staying afloat. But they are making it harder than need be, a problem if not resolved could return to bite them.
The home win over Crystal Palace apart, United have been second best in first halves against Bournemouth, Leicester City and now Chelsea. Then gone on to demonstrate they are equal to the task. Sure, they lost at home to Leicester having equalised after the break, but defeat was down to a breathtaking volley from Harvey Barnes which was absolutely unstoppable. That aside, the Foxes, a side tipped to finish in the top six, were forced to back peddle.
Hopefully United can use to the international break to reflect, put any lingering doubts behind them and re-start at home to Southampton as they mean to go on.
The nature of the beast meant that when United emerged for the second half at Stamford Bridge trailing by two goals, they were going to fight. At that point it could have gone one of two ways. Either Chelsea were going to take further advantage if gaps opened up and a hiding was on the cards. Or the Londoners were in for an awakening.
When summer signing Callum Robinson, who missed a golden chance to pull a goal back before the break, began the recovery, scoring just one minute after the restart in front of an army of travelling Blades, there was no looking back.
Henderson made up for his earlier blooper, with a diving save to deny Abraham a hat-trick, effectively keeping his team in the match. Apart from that United, true to form, grew into the dominant force and it became increasingly apparent there was only one team likely to score.
Substitute Lys Mousset did the honours in the 89th-minute. Defender Kurt Zouma was credited with the last touch and an own goal which could only have been marginal as he tried to block his fellow Frenchman’s effort.
“We shot ourselves in the foot with two ridiculously poor goals from our point of view. We’ve not conceded goals like that for a long, long time,” said Wilder.
The manager who revealed he had “smashed” keeper Henderson for his first-half error but was quick to praise him for his response for the crucial save that followed, added: “We grew after we scored, that gave us a belief. I thought we dominated the second half still knowing that with [Chelsea’s] unbelievable quality at the top of the pitch that they can open you up at any time.”
Lampard lamented: “We had more than enough on the pitch to win that game from 2-0 up. There is no chance that that game should swing like that. We gave them the possibility to hurt us. We have to take responsibility, we allowed that to happen. It was on us to take the game away from them and we allowed them to get back into it.”
In truth the fixture computer did United a favour in sending them to Chelsea so early in the season. A couple of months from now expect the Blues to be a more formidable prospect. But you can only play what is in front of you and the Blades left London with their reputation enhanced, dealing another blow to those critics who had written them off before a ball had been kicked.
Starting matches the way they finish them is the way forward. Against exceptional sides like Manchester City and Liverpool, the latter visit Bramall Lane at the end of the month, a more pragmatic approach will obviously be needed. Try to stay in the contest and hope for a goal on the break.
But against the majority, even the likes of a newly evolving Chelsea, what the reintroduction to top flight football has told United is that there is really little to be afraid of.
More belief form the get-go will make all the difference.