Match Analysis: Sheffield United prove their character and calibre during a 3-1 win over Derby County
Two months ago, when Sheffield United and Derby County last faced one another in footballing combat, Frank Lampard expressed his admiration for the way Chris Wilder's team plays.
"I love watching them," the former Chelsea, England and Manchester City midfielder was overheard telling a memberÂ of his backroom staff afterwards. "I really enjoy their set-up, approach and shape."
Coming from one of the most decorated professionals of the modern era, it was high praise indeed although, as WilderÂ acknowledged following October's defeat at Pride Park, the visitors would have preferred the points to plaudits.
After an hour-and-a-half of breathless action, which showcased the best of United and, when the fixture began to ebbÂ away from them, County's petulant streak, the United manager had no such cause for complaint. Coming against aÂ promotion rival, both the result and the manner in which it was achieved meant this felt like a potentially pivotalÂ afternoon in both the Championship season as a whole and race for the Premier League.
"It was a great game between two sides with no fear," Wilder said, after goals from Billy Sharp, David McGoldrick and Leon Clarke lifted United to fourth in the table. "We've talked about winning tight games before and we've done that out there. W have a way of playing and, when it comes off, that's what happens. You get outcomes like that."
Although Jack O'Connell's part in Sharp's 14th of the season will have elicited a begrudging nod of approval fromÂ Lampard - the 40-year-old is a confirmed admirer of United's over-lapping centre-halves - he will have been less thanÂ impressed by Scott Carson's delayed reaction. But, it was Wilder and United who had reason to feel truly aggrievedÂ when, moments after David McGoldrick had a clear cut penalty waved away by referee Geoff Eltringham and his assistants, Harry Wilson drew County level with a delightful free-kick in stark contrast to the dreadful officiating whichÂ preceded it.
As Wilder and Lampard exchanged views in front of the dug-outs, United found themselves facing a huge test ofÂ character. They passed with flying colours thanks to some gutsy work at the back and, once the previously influentialÂ Mason Mount and Wilson had been subdued, genuinely inventive attacking. Indeed, before McGoldrick and ClarkeÂ had pounced, Sharp could have twice added to his total.Â Â
"We needed to own the game at that point," Lampard said. "Sheffield United are one of the best teams in the league,Â one of the best teams we've played against, but we made mistakes that cost us the game."
With a rousing rendition of the Greasy Chip Butty song blowing away the Boxing Day cobwebs, it quickly becameÂ apparent that neither of these two forward thinking sides were bothered about feeling their way into the contest.
McGoldrick, who later set in the motion the chain of events which led to Sharp's opener, had Scott Carson scramblingÂ across his line with a curling shot from the edge of the penalty area which drifted inches wide of the far post beforeÂ the County goalkeeper denied Sharp with a faint but ultimately decisive touch as they contested a loose ball. InÂ between, Mount, one of two players the visitors have signed on loan from Stamford Bridge, forced Dean HendersonÂ to parry.
"We were a little bit tentative first-half but the goal just before the break gave us belief," Wilder said. "Then we came roaring out.'
With United naming an unchanged starting eleven, it was not surprise they shaded the opening exchanges beforeÂ County, drafting in Andre Wisdom, Jack Marriott and Craig Bryson, began to find their rhythm.
But withÂ both sets of players defending tenaciously, they were always one pass away from making the best of their approach play until Tom Huddlestone sent Wilson racing through midway through the first half.
Even then George Baldock, who had spotted the dangerÂ unfolding, raced back to clear the youngster's shot off the line after he had skipped past the onrushing Henderson. ItÂ proved a crucial intervention when, five minutes before the interval, Sharp headed home his 14th of the season fromÂ O'Connell's cross after McGoldrick had released the centre-half.Â
Although the captain's intervention came at one of those pivotal moments of a game Wilder feels United are yet toÂ properly master, County's threat beforehand confirmed there was still plenty of work ahead for his men.
Wilson's equaliser, which flew into the top corner of Henderson's net, sparked a melee in the six yard box and furyÂ inside the technical area as Wilder and Lampard gesticulated furiously at each other. Hence the explosion of noiseÂ from three-quarters of the stadium and exuberant celebration on the touchline when McGoldrick, lobbing Carson,Â restored United's advantage. The centre-forward kept his head when all about him were losing theirs. Likewise ClarkeÂ who, after coming on as a substitute, settled this pulsating encounter at the far post.
"Everybody contributed," Wilder said. "I always felt we could get the third."