This was not the kind of night that will take up too much time in Everton’s end-of-season highlights package but, in the end, such games could turn out to be the ones that matter most. If this season ends in success for Carlo Ancelotti and his side come May, then this miserable, rainswept evening in South Yorkshire will not be the most poignant memory. But that does not make Gylfi Sigurdsson’s decisive strike 10 minutes from time, or the ramifications of it, any less significant.
Before that moment, it was Storm Bella that felt as if it had the most significant influence on proceedings here, as Everton looked set to follow Manchester United, Leicester and Chelsea in dropping vital points on Boxing Day. Conditions were difficult for both sides and, given the situation both find themselves in at present, you felt as though a point here would have done nothing for the aims of either.
By the end, though, this felt like the most emphatic sign yet that Everton are evolving under Ancelotti into a side who the Premier League’s elite will be mindful of keeping at least one eye on. On a night when chances were few and far between, the fact Everton still left with the three points that moved them into second and to within two points of Liverpool, the leaders, is noteworthy, even if large parts of this game ultimately weren’t.
“It’s a victory for the spirit of the team,” said Ancelotti. “They play with a lot of intensity and fighting spirit, and we knew we had to be patient and not give them opportunities. That was the plan all along.”
Ancelotti and Chris Wilder had watched their sides battle gamely against the elements for most of the night which inevitably led to fewer gilt-edged opportunities. The best of those in a first half with minimal goalmouth action fell to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who, on his return to the ground where he began his career as a teenager, controlled a swirling long ball superbly on his chest before volleying just wide of Aaron Ramsdale’s goal.
At the other end, Sheffield United’s best chance came when Oliver Burke fired wide of Jordan Pickford’s goal but the Everton goalkeeper was rarely called into action.
As Ancelotti pointed out, the spirit of Sheffield United is certainly not in question. That was evident here by how they held on for so long, but having been so close to only their third point – and first clean sheet – of the season before Sigurdsson’s winner, you suspect the odds are not just shortening on their relegation: the book has probably closed.
“It was a tight game with a lack of chances, but I’m disappointed with us in terms of our quality,” Wilder conceded. “It’s a bit like a broken record, saying the same things, but if we’d shown a little bit more composure and quality, it would have given us a better chance.”
Failure to win at Burnley on Tuesday would now equal the Premier League record for the longest start to a season without victory, set by QPR in 2012-13.
Wilder’s decision to move away from the 5-3-2 formation that has been a staple of their time in the top flight looked to be serving the Blades well for large periods here, at least in terms of the frustration they caused Everton defensively up until Sigurdsson’s winner.
However, as Wilder admitted, their lack of quality is costing them dearly. Oli McBurnie felt he had an appeal for a penalty when he collided with Michael Keane, and John Egan flashed a header over Pickford’s bar from a corner, but Everton did not have the look of a side who were being troubled.
And just as a rare point looked to be coming into view for the Blades, it was ruthlessly taken away from them. The hosts failed to clear their lines properly and Abdoulaye Doucouré’s deft pass afforded Sigurdsson just enough time to shoot past a sprawling Ramsdale on the angle. It wasn’t pretty – far from it, in fact. But you suspect Ancelotti and Everton will not care one bit..