Sheffield United 2 Crystal Palce 0
POWERFUL, purposeful and pugnacious when required, Sheffield United sent an ominious statement of intent reverberating through the rest of the division with this comprehensive victory over Crystal Palace.
Clinical finishes in either half from Lee Williamson and Stephen Quinn ensured Kevin Blackwell's side stretched their unbeaten run to six games and climbed to eighth in the Championship table entering the crucial Christmas period.
But the devil was in the detail and while Blackwell will doubtless savour a first victory over former mentor Neil Warnock, even more satisfying was the sight of them replicating the type of football which made them such a force to be reckoned with en route to last season's play-off final.
Dismissed in recent weeks as a one trick team determined to bludgeon their way back into the promotion race, United's performance against obstinate opponents proved it is possible to combine industry and intelligence.
With their most accomplished performers returning, although leading scorer Darius Henderson was again a notable absentee, so do results.
And Gary Speed, again deputising for Blackwell at the post-match press conference, insisted there is even more to come.
"I thought we did exceptionally well," United's player/coach said. "But there are always areas where you can improve and we'll be working on those hard in training before our next outing.
"If we can show those levels of energy, application and commitment for the rest of the campaign then I've got no doubts we'll be right up there come the end.
"But there is no way that we are going to be taking anything for granted.
"Things are going well at the moment but if you relax for one second in this league then it's got a nasty habit of rearing-up and biting you on the bum."
Warnock, who led United to promotion before becoming arguably the biggest casualty of the Carlos Tevez Affair, has fashioned a dangerous side at Selhurst Park despite severe financial constraints.
Palace's efforts were hampered by a bout of food poisoning apparently traced back to a late night chicken dish consumed at their hotel - "It was like Emergency Ward 10 in the morning, "Warnock revealed. "Five of the lads had sickness and diarrhoea." - but even with a properly prepared squad the final outcome would have almost certainly been the same.
In attack, with Ched Evans, Richard Cresswell, Quinn and Jamie Ward posing all manner of problems, United were definitely hot to trot while at the back the defensive solidity which underpinned May's march to Wembley was again in evidence.
"That's our third clean sheet in a row now and that's very pleasing," Speed said.
"It's important to do that because it means that, no matter what happens, you are always going to take something away with you.
"We want that to continue.
"If you can keep 19 or 20 of those throughout the year then, in my experience, that's going to be enough to get you in the top two or three."
Evans, living-up to Blackwell's billing as "A young Alan Shearer," helped United immediately seize the initiative when Palace's Danny Butterfield deflected his shot onto a post.
The Wales international failed to claim the goal his contribution deserved but did help to create the opening which saw Quinn cross for Williamson to score despite Julian Speroni's valiant attempt.
"I was pleased with the lads because we were still in it at the break," Warnock acknowledged after also watching Cresswell and Evans test the Argentine's reactions. "There were extenuating circumstances and we're disappointed.
"But we can't have any complaints because the best team won."
Palace's position in mid-table is testimony to Warnock's man-management skills given the hardships they are being forced to endure and in Victor Moses, whose progress is being monitored by clubs at home and abroad, they possess a supremely gifted young talent.
But with James Harper, Quinn and Williamson overwhelming Palace in midfield, he spent long spells of Saturday afternoon on the periphery of an absorbing contest.
Evans, again, went close soon after the re-start before Clint Hill's handball inside the penalty box escaped the attention of referee Colin Webster and his assistant.
United, though, were not to be denied and Quinn, a constant whirl of energy along the flank, drilled home across Speroni during the dying moments.
"We did exceptionally well," Speed said. "We always knew that Palace were going to be tough.
"They always are and so we knew we would have to work hard.
"But we also used the ball well and passed it with confidence."What do you think? Add your comments below.
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