The massacre many had predicted failed to materialise but Sheffield United got the job done.
Oldham Athletic, bottom of the table and having conceded more goals on Boxing Day than any other team in England, produced the type of determined shift which, as Chris Wilder remarked afterwards, made a mockery of their position at the foot of League One.
Visiting manager Stephen Robinson insisted that Billy Sharp, who scored both his team’s goals as second-placed United moved to within a point of leaders Scunthorpe, had proved the difference between these two sides.
That explanation is unlikely to curry favour with Wilder, who prefers his players to be relentless rather than capricious, but made easy listening for United’s captain as he celebrated a personal landmark.
“That’s my 50th goal for us and it’s a great feeling to have,” Sharp said.
“My dad always comes up with little facts and figures and he told me I was two short beforehand.
“He comes to watch all my games and he’s got a massive scrapbook on my career.
“It’ll be nice to be able to put that in there but, to be honest, it only means so much because we came through in the end.”
For long periods, United’s performance was staccato rather than swashbuckling.
John Fleck, usually so precise in the centre of the park, struggled to impose himself on the fixture while his midfielder partner Paul Coutts, until a rejig during the interval, dropped a shade too deep.
The result, with a few other factors thrown into the mix, was a scrappy, disjointed game.
There were moments of quality, most notably the finishes which saw Sharp claim his 15th and 16th goals of the season, but, from United’s perspective at least, far too few.
Still, as he acknowledged, they found a way to win. Leon Clarke’s entrance also helped change the dynamic of the contest.
“There’s a lot of character in our dressing room and we had to show that out there,” Sharp said.
“Credit to them (Oldham) because they made it tough for us as we knew they would. But we dug-in, kept on going and ground it out.
“I think everybody can see that, compared to last season, we’re much mentally tougher now.”
Oldham, to their credit, were clearly not content with playing the role of sacrificial lambs.
Propping-up the rest of the division and without a league win since October, Robinson’s side packed their defence when the situation demanded and, until Sharp broke their resolve, committed themselves fully on the counter attack.
Ryan Flynn, among the victims of Wilder brutal cull of Bramall Lane’s squad after taking charge in May, was clearly intent on proving they had been wrong to let him go.
The midfielder, a member of the teams which reached the semi-finals of both the FA and EFL Cups under Nigel Clough’s stewardship, ran with vigour, tackled with venom and, before United’s persistence told, drew a wonderful one-handed save from United goalkeeper Simon Moore.
“The difference was Billy Sharp,” Robinson lamented.
“If we had him then I’m sure we would have come away with something.
“There’s a big difference between the two clubs at this moment in time and, to be fair, Chris and his staff are doing an excellent job.
“Nobody expected us to get anything so we came to give it a go.
“We’re a goalscorer away from being a half decent team and, if we had someone like Billy, we would have taken the chances that came our way.”
Having named an unchanged starting eleven - Wilder making it clear that chasing results must take precedence over guarding against fatigue - United slipped immediately into gear and were unfortunate not to be awarded a fourth minute penalty when Ethan Ebanks-Landell was sent tumbling in the box.
Wilder, doing a passable impression of Peter Schmeichel, made his displeasure felt by performing a series of manic star jumps across the technical area.
Only a superb save from Moore, palming a long-range shot from Flynn away to safety moments later, prevented his mood from taking an immediate turn for the worse.
Despite United best efforts to force the issue, Oldham succeeded in turning the match into a war of attrition as the half wore on.
Hence the sense of disappointment inside the stadium when Daniel Lafferty’s header across the six yard box inexplicably evaded both Matt Done and Sharp before Jack O’Connell saw an attempt blocked at the far post.
Clarke’s introduction provided United with an aerial threat they nearly exploited when Charles Dunne cleared Sharp’s second-half centre as the substitute prepared to turn it home.
Sharp, who kept beavering away despite his shortage of opportunities, finally got his reward in the 72nd minute.
The centre-forward, who had earlier thrashed over on the turn, pounced on Duffy’s pass and powered home beyond Connor Ripley.
Oldham served notice they were still alive and kicking when substitute Freddie Ladapo’s looping strike was turned away by Moore but Sharp squeezed the life out of the contest when he scored again, after Clarke had put Ripley under pressure, two minutes from time.
“My first goal was probably better but the second meant more,” Sharp said. “Now we’ve just got to keep working hard and driving on.”
Sheffield United: Moore, Fleck, O’Connell, Basham, Sharp, Done (L Clarke 54), Coutts (Wright 89), Freeman, Ebanks-Landell, Duffy, Lafferty. Not used: Scougall, Lavery, Ramsdale, Brown, Brooks.
Oldham Athletic: Ripley, Law, Wilson, Flynn, McKay, Dummigan, Osei (Ladapo 73), P Clarke, McLaughlin, Green (Winchester 88), Dunne (Croft 80). Not used: Burgess, Banks, Kettings, Edmundson.
Referee: Mark Heywood (West Yorkshire).