EletiofeSheffield United denied by goalline technology as Aston Villa...

Sheffield United denied by goalline technology as Aston Villa earn point


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How heartening after three-months of lockdown, death and strife to have something so trivial to argue over as a disallowed goal. Welcome back, Premier League.

Of course the key detail here was not trivial in a football sense and, actually, there is no argument about whether the goal should have stood: the ball definitely crossed the line, the problem arose because the reputedly infallible goalline technology failed. Given the strangeness of this match’s context, it was a fittingly odd development. It was also an embarrassment the Premier League should have avoided in possibly its most anticipated fixture ever.

It came just before half-time in a match of impressively high intensity and, if it had been permitted, it would have given Sheffield United a lead as they tried to climb to fifth in the table and plunged Villa deeper into relegation trouble. Ollie Norwood fizzed an in-swinging free-kick from the left wing and the home goalkeeper, Ørjan Nyland, stretched to catch it but his momentum sent him backpedaling over the line and crashing into the side-netting. He took the ball with him.

United players celebrated what they believed to be an obvious goal. But the referee, Michael Oliver, waved play on, dismissing protests by pointing to his watch to indicate it had not buzzed to confirm all of the ball had crossed the line. Moments later the referee blew for an infringement against Villa – and that brought an end to the passage of play, which is why, according to the Premier League, the decision was not allowed to be referred to VAR.

The exasperation was plain on the faces of United staff watching on a monitor on the sidelines.

Until that point the game had been tight and mildly diverting. Of course it was not the same as before. The first thing you noticed was what was missing. This was the Premier League Unplugged. No giddy throngs enlivened the stands before kickoff, no chanters or hawkers or hoopla. Nor even much chat. Just a drib-drab of club staffers and journalists, all waiting for the emergence of two squads of players who hoped to perform like superstars in a setting halfway between a Sunday League wilderness and a top-end film studio.

By the time the players emerged for their warm-ups, the thunder and rain above Villa Park had subsided and the sun pierced the clouds to spread a little light. Which, ultimately, is also what the football was here to do.

In competitive terms this was a critical duel, the match that these sides had in hand over those around them at opposite ends of the table. To the question about what has changed over the last three months they hoped to give contrasting answers: the Blades planned to play the same as before the forced pause, whereas Villa aimed to show evidence of serious change after the “refocusing and resetting” that Dean Smith spoke of doing during the shutdown.

Smith made some bold choices with his team selection, including the decision to pick Nyland in goal ahead of Pepe Reina. He also gave a first league start to Keinan Davis up front, deployed Ezri Konsa at right-back in a four-man defence and gave the fit-again John McGinn a first appearance for six months.

Chris Wilder, meanwhile, saw his continuity plans sabotaged by injuries to Jack O’Connell and John Fleck. The former was replaced by Jack Robinson, appearing in the league for the first time since joining United for free in January.

Davis made life uncomfortable for the visiting defenders as Villa started strongly. After rolling his marker in the first minute he lashed the ball across the face of goal, forcing an urgent clearance. Soon afterwards he had a chance to score after Konsa headed a corner back across the goal but, after doing well to reach it, he sent his own header over the bar from two yards.

McGinn met a dangerous free-kick in the 17th minute with a powerful header but Dean Henderson saved without fuss.

As the first half progressed United’s well calibrated machine began to push back the hosts. The pressure from the visitors grew but penetration was lacking and, in a happy development, Villa did not look like self-destructing. And then Nyland reeled backwards over his line with the ball, but Villa got away with it.

Both sides pursued victory in the second half, Villa more convincingly. Henderson had to make two fine saves to foil Davis and then McGinn. Then Nyland held his ground after clasping a header from Oli McBurnie.

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