Sheffield United’s under 18s ensured it would be an unbeaten pre-season with this 2-1 victory over a big, physically strong and athletic Birmingham City side. For their size though, they could play a bit and gave the Blades the biggest test that I’ve seen in all pre-season games at Shirecliffe so far this term.
Pemberton made a few changes to the side that beat Walsall last week, with a couple of players in unfamiliar positions as the Blades started in a flat 4-4-2 instead of the diamond. Otis Khan started instead of Jordan Hodder at right back after his appearance at Matlock, with Tyler Williams taking the place of Elliot Ptak at left back. Owen Heather started on the left hand side of midfield, and the match-winner from that game, Jamie-Dean McDonagh was given a start on the right.
United kicked off in what was a crazy start to the game, with Jahmal Smith and Diego DeGirolamo taking it. Smith tapped it to DeGirolamo as soon as the ref blew his whistle, and DeGirolamo started to run at the Birmingham midfield immediately, beating three players before unleashing a fierce 25 yard left-footed shot into the top corner less than ten seconds into the game. The keeper could have perhaps done better, but I think he was a bit shocked to be thrown into action seconds into the match. It was the perfect start for the home side.
Birmingham’s response was almost as quick as the start United had though, they kept possession from kick off and around ten passes later found the number 9 who had a bit of space on the left. He turned inside Pemberton and curled a great effort into the far top corner from 30 yards out, past the outstretched arm of Willis who could do nothing else to save it. That made it 1-1 after two minutes of the game.
That wasn’t the end of the early scoring, as United went 2-1 up through the highly rated Diego DeGirolamo’s second of the game, just four minutes in. This came as Birmingham themselves pressed for the early second goal, before a really good counter attacking move was executed perfectly by the hosts. The ball was cleared and quickly won in midfield, before finding it’s way to DeGirolamo who fired a low shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the penalty area, across the visiting keeper who couldn’t have reached it had he been a foot taller.
The home side could, and probably should, have been 3-1 up in eight minutes. Good work down the left between Tyler Williams, DeGirolamo and Heather got in behind the defence, but Heather’s cut-back couldn’t be converted as Jahmal Smith sliced his shot wide from 10 yards.
It was the visitors who had the next chance and it was by far their best of the first half. The two strikers linked up well and got in behind the United defence, but Willis came to the rescue as he rushed out towards the edge of his box and made an excellent save low down, before getting up and diving at the feet of the other Birmingham striker to save once again. The ball found it’s way back to the visitors again though, and they would have equalised if not for a great block by holding midfielder Ben Whiteman preventing a certain goal.
In what turned into a topsy-turvy few minutes, United had another good opportunity. Centre half Josh Williams played a long, accurate ball over the top for De Girolamo who was looking for his hat-trick, but he didn’t catch his shot cleanly and it was dragged a good five yards wide of the keeper’s left hand post.
Birmingham’s next chance actually came from a Sheffield United corner. Otis Khan’s delivery was to the edge of the box where he found Pemberton, but his first touch let him down and this led to a dangerous five on three break for the visitors. The break didn’t work out too well as their midfielder made the wrong choice and lost all momentum from the move, causing an argument between two of their players, and giving the Blades a lucky escape.
The see-saw continued as Khan and McDonagh combined well down the right hand side, a quick one-two led to the former firing a stunning low cross into the box but it was just in front of Smith and DeGirolamo, so the score remained 2-1 at half time, with not much more action other than a long range effort from the visitors’ number 4, which Willis did well to parry safely wide for a corner.
In a similar pattern to last week, it was a much quieter second half that was interrupted by numerous substitutions from both sides. However, it was the visitors who had a lot more of the ball than United this time. The first chance of the second half came to the away side from a set piece. A good delivery from the right hand side led to a free header for the towering centre half, but he was unable to take advantage as he failed to test Willis and headed straight over the bar.
It would be the same centre half that caused the next save of the game, but it was actually from his own keeper. DeGirolamo found Owen Heather down the left, and his drilled cross was headed towards his own goal by the defender, and it would have been 3-1 had it not been for a very smart reflex save from the Birmingham stopper.
After that, the visitors were in control of the game and had a number of attacks without creating any clear chances to equalise. They won a couple of corners in a row, but couldn’t cause many problems as United defended excellently, seemingly winning every ball that went into the box. The best effort came from the Birmingham left back, who hit a low drive from the edge of the box which Willis saved comfortably. The rest of the match continued in the same vein, with Birmingham having plenty of possession but failing to really test the impressive George Willis in the United net.
The game fizzled out towards the end due to the great defensive work of the home side, and they held on to win 2-1 and end their pre-season in excellent form after remaining unbeaten for the entirety of it. There’s some promising signs leading up to the league season, which commences against Coventry at Shirecliffe next Saturday, 18th August.
Sheffield United: Willis, Khan, Salt (Scarisbrick), J Williams, T Williams (Ptak), McDonagh (Coustrain), Whiteman (Dimaio), Pemberton, Heather, DeGirolamo (Paling), Smith (Eyre).