Sheffield United 2, Stoke City 1: Blades late show maintains 100 per cent pre-season record

David Brooks of Sheffield Utd (l) celebrates scoring the winning goal. Pic: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
David Brooks of Sheffield Utd (l) celebrates scoring the winning goal. Pic: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
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Even though this was a pre-season fixture, the size of the task facing Sheffield United last night became evident the moment Stoke City delivered their team sheet to the match official’s locker room at Bramall Lane.

Visiting manager Mark Hughes named nine full internationals, including new signing Kurt Zouma, in his starting eleven for a match Chris Wilder always suspected would reveal much about the hosts’ own credentials.

United are unlikely to face many teams capable of leaving Bojan Krkic, a three-time La Liga winner with Barcelona, on the bench when they reacquaint themselves with the Championship next month.

Little wonder then that Alan Knill, Wilder’s assistant, sported a beaming smile when he faced the media following this much-warranted win.

“I still think we can get better,” he said. “But we’re at our best when we’ve got the ball and we’re attacking. We did all of those things out there.

“That was a real test for us, Stoke are excellent opposition, so when we had the ball we had to make sure we did something with it. And we did.”

Billy Sharp celebrates putting United ahead. Pic: Simon Bellis

Billy Sharp celebrates putting United ahead. Pic: Simon Bellis

Ensuring Billy Sharp recaptures the form which made him such a force to be reckoned with last term could prove crucial to United’s chances over the next 10 months.

So, with that in mind, Wilder will have been delighted to see his most prolific centre-forward score a typical poacher’s effort during the opening exchanges. But what really enthused United’s coaching staff was the calibre of their team’s play.

Samir Carruthers caused City all sorts of problems before being withdrawn early in the second-half.

John Fleck and Paul Coutts picked their passes with precision in midfield.

Chris Wilder urges his side on. Pic: Simon Bellis

Chris Wilder urges his side on. Pic: Simon Bellis

Even more impressive though, especially against one of the Premier League’s most physical outfits, was the tenacity which underpinned United’s work.

Although it is impossible to make definitive judgements at this stage of a club’s preparations, certain conclusions can be drawn. The camaraderie which helped United gain promotion is clearly still intact while new arrivals such as Richard Stearman and Enda Stevens have bought into Wilder’s philosophy.

On top of it all, Steelphalt Academy graduate David Brooks continues to make rapid progress and, after scoring a late but deserved winner, left the pitch to a standing ovation.

“He’s not very close to the squad anymore,” Knill, who described news that John Lundstram’s move from Oxford had finally been completed as “excellent”, said.

“He’s right in the mix.”

Despite bolstering their squad since lifting the League One title, United have received an unwelcome reminder about the strength in depth required to compete at a higher level in recent weeks.

With 20-year-old goalkeeper Jake Eastwood deputising for the injured Simon Moore, Wilder was forced to name Jim Pollard, a graduate of their Futures programme, on the bench.

Nevertheless, until Shaqiri cancelled-out Sharp’s opener, United looked more like the Premier League club.

Although the captain’s effort was a gift - City’s defence appearing to be struck down by an acute case of brain-fade before the ball was swept home - the moves which nearly saw Sharp claim a second, after Carruthers had also gone close, oozed quality.

Likewise Shaqiri’s finish which, after Eastwood had earlier produced a fine save to deny the Swiss, dragged Hughes’ men level.

Mark Duffy was a whisker away from restoring United’s advantage with a low drive which flew just past the foot of Lee Grant’s near post before fellow substitute Charlie Adam tried his luck from long-distance.

Eastwood embellished his reputation with some confident handling as City pressed but it was Brooks who had the last word; beating Grant with a powerful shot after a game of pinball in the penalty box.