Sheffield United 1 Ipswich Town 1
IF IT'S Wembley, heralded the Sheffield United programme with a couple exclamation marks. The punctuation was apt. Ipswich Town must now be favourites to reach the First Division play-off final as Howard Kendall's side failed to take advantage of a generous portion of possession in this first leg at Bramall Lane.
These sides finished within a point of each other in the table and this was reflected in a through-the-looking-glass game with Sheffield, in vertical stripes, all long and lean, and Ipswich, in low horizontal stripes, all big bottomed and squat.
Every neat pass was matched by an over-hit one by the other side and then vice versa. As the first half progressed, a string of opportunities at both ends were being squandered.
Ipswich striker Neil Gregory was the most guilty. He was put clear inside the penalty area by virtue of a misunderstanding in the Sheffield defence but guided the ball well wide of goalkeeper Alan Kelly and the upright.
Home advantage slowly began to tell and Sheffield pressed the more determinedly. Their chances fell in the main to Jan-Aage Fjortoft, who looked sharper with each effort and then, in the 41st minute, scored his 11th of the season, gliding past the challenge of Chris Swailes to beat Richard Wright at his near post. Fjortoft was denied a quick second goal by the intervention of Geraint Williams but pleas for a penalty were ignored.
The half-time talk in the Ipswich dressing-room must have centred on George Burley's side using the flanks more. Mick Stockwell was direct and dangerous when in space on the right flank, and Maurico Taricco stole down the left to ruffle Sheffield's defence.
Ipswich were not given any time in which to apply new tactics, however, as Sheffield maintained the pressure in the second half. The home midfield were taking a firm grip as Ipswich appeared bewildered by the new-found defensive qualities of a side against whom they had scored six goals this season.
Kieron Dyer's corner for Ipswich saw Kelly run out of position and Steve Sedgley, faced with a horde of red stripes, lofted the ball over the crossbar too.
In contrast, spaces were left invitingly in front of the Ipswich goal and Don Hutchison might have done better with a blistering shot directed straight at Wright. Then, in the 78th minute, Ipswich equalised, the Sheffield defence momentarily reverting to the clumsy version Ipswich were more used to.
Kelly raced toward his defenders anticipating a back-pass as a ball was lofted into the area but Williams got there first and prodded through to Stockwell who made no mistake with a vacant six-yard box in front of him.