GARY Smith described Sheffield United as strong favourites for the League One title before this fixture but the Stevenage manager could be forgiven for changing his mind after Daniel Lopez shattered the aura of defensive invincibility surrounding Danny Wilson’s side, writes James Shield.
The visitors arrived at The Lamex Stadium unbeaten in seven, boasting six consecutive clean sheets and with designs on wrestling top spot from leaders Doncaster Rovers.
They departed having seen Lopez’s second hat-trick in the space of a week condemn them to a sobering defeat and Brentford, next on the agenda at Bramall Lane, seize second place courtesy of dramatic late victory over Preston North End.
Wilson, whose misery was compounded by an injury to Jamie Murphy, said: “We’ve learned a lesson today but what it’s all about now is the response and I’ve got no worries about my lads’ ability on that score.
“We’ll reflect on events here. But we won’t dwell. We’ll look at what happened and then move on.
“Lopez was on fire out there but from our perspective they were all poor goals and he’ll never score an easier hat-trick than that.”
The exact circumstances surrounding Lopez’s arrival in North Hertfordshire are shrouded in mystery with even Smith and his staff admitting they are not quite sure what prompted the Spaniard to request a trial last summer.
But, having signed off a loan spell at Barnet with a three-goal spree against Morecambe seven days earlier, his finishing prowess is abundantly clear.
Lopez has endured a nomadic existence since graduating from Atletico Madrid’s youth academy.
While Fernando Torres, his contemporary at the Vicente Calderon enjoyed international and domestic success, the 27-year-old was forced to scrape a living in the regional leagues with the likes of Las Rozas and the now defunct CD Badajoz before belatedly arriving on these shores seven months ago.
Still far from the complete footballer - despite a sizeable frame, Lopez has little appetite for physical work - he nevertheless boasts the touch and technique capable of gracing a more glamorous stage.
The long-range strike, which followed his two earlier efforts, was simply outrageous.
“It is a dream come true,” Lopez, making his first Stevenage start, said. “Scoring three times in this division is much harder than in the one below.
“I was a little nervous to begin with but the loans have helped me to settle.
“I have been very lucky to work with some great names in my career. I trained with Torres a long while ago and Edgar Davids (Barnet’s coach) was my idol growing up so that had helped a lot.”
Although Wilson always knew United’s run of defensive success was destined to end, not even Stevenage’s staunchest supporter would have predicted this outcome.
The hosts, who entered the match having lost eight of their previous nine games, were powerful, purposeful and robust.
United, by contrast, were indecisive at the back and careless in possession. They showed brief glimpses of the quality which has thrust them into promotion contention with Callum McFadzean emerging as the biggest threat to Stevenage. But too many of the young substitute’s teammates fell off the pace after Lopez opened his account with a shot on the turn before adding another after being released by Gavin Mahon’s pass.
A powerful long-range drive heaped further embarrassment on United, with Lucas Akins completing the rout with an angled drive which deceived George Long.
“We didn’t defend
well but it’s not only about the back four,” Wilson said. “We didn’t defend as a group and we didn’t defend from the front.
“That’s what we have been doing so well lately but it didn’t happen here.”
What will trouble Wilson more, though, is the fact that United have now failed to score in three of their last four outings. A worrying trend which must be addressed before the meeting with Brentford.
Ryan Flynn drew a smart block from Steve Arnold after combining well with Michael Doyle, Barry Robson and Dave Kitson both went close before Stevenage, leading 2-0 at the time, had a lucky escape when Lee Hills headed against the underside of his own crossbar.
“That was the highlight of our season,” Smith said. “It was absolutely incredible. We know what a good team Sheffield are. Danny has shown out there how confident he is when he gets in front of goal. He’s still finding out about the English game. He’ll have to take some knocks.
“But he’s got bundles of ability. Absolutely bundles.”