Sheffield United 2, Middlesbrough 1: Good Evans! Lee's the hero for Blades as they show play-off race isn't over yet
There was no margin for error, no room for manoeuvre and, with only five matches of the season remaining, no doubt whatsoever that Sheffield United really needed to win.
The fact they achieved their objective owed as much to Lee Evans' brilliance in front of goal as it did Middlesbrough's fractious first-half performance and Grant Leadbitter's sending-off.
But at the end of it all, after surviving a furious comeback from Tony Pulis' side, United secured the victory which saw them move to within a point of the visitors and remain three behind sixth-placed Millwall who visit Bramall Lane this weekend.
Chris Wilder, who experienced the full gamut of emotions on the touchline as his team refused to deploy any game management, acknowledged there were times when this was a lesson in how not to play against 10 men.
But, as he warned beforehand, United have an aversion to doing things the easy way. The most important thing, their manager insisted, was that after developing an unfortunate habit of shooting themselves in the foot, on this occasion they got the job done.
"Anyone who has watched us knows that we've done well before and not got the result," Wilder said. "So it was brilliant we delivered it here. That keeps our race alive. If they'd have won, it would have been unbelievably difficult to force our way in."
Wilder had used his programme notes to praise the speed with which United have acclimatised to Championship football and, only 12 months after winning one promotion, bemoan the fact they were not in a stronger position to secure another. But buried among the plaudits and platitudes was a passage detailing how he expected them to approach the 99th fixture of his reign.
"We played too slow, we played backwards and square," Wilder said, analysing United's defeat by Barnsley three days earlier. "They won first and second balls."
His plea for a fast start clearly resonated in United's dressing room with Evans thrashing a memorable volley past a despairing Darren Randolph before even breaking sweat. It was the midfielder's first goal for the club since a January transfer from Wolverhampton Wanderers and the perfect response after being hauled-off during the first-half at Oakwell. Evans, though, was in no mood to stop there and produced another wonderful finish to seemingly put United in control.
That was until Daniel Ayala put the outcome back in doubt with a simple conversion from close-range and changed the entire complexion of the fixture.
Consumed by a desire to prove people wrong and demonstrate money is not the only route to footballing success, last night's match against a team boasting over Â£34m of talent in its starting eleven appealed to United's rebellious nature.
But, after Ayala's intervention, they became wracked by doubt and appeared to forget the possessed a numerical advantage. There was an audible sigh of relief inside the stadium when the full time whistle blew.
"We got a little bit tight," Wilder continued. "It's always a rollercoaster here. But we weren't playing against a mug team or a mug manager. I'd love to have the career Tony has."
Having begun the evening four points behind the visitors from Teesside, United were under no illusions about the importance of this game. Indeed, the PA announcer had barely finished imploring the crowd to "Give it everything" when Evans edged them in front. Enda Stevens was responsible for creating the opening, putting Middlesbrough's rearguard on the back foot with a driving run before flashing a dangerous cross into the area. It was cleared. But only just. Evans, lurking in space 20 yards from Randolph, was alert to the possibilities and powered home a delightful finish with the side of his foot.
Had Leon Clarke demonstrated the same technical expertise when the Wales international prised apart Middlesbrough's defence with a perfectly weighted pass, United would have extended their advantage before the quarter-of-an-hour mark. Instead, with only Randolph to beat, the centre-forward struggled to adjust his footwork before shooting and fired straight at the goalkeeper.
As Middlesbrough struggled to establish a foothold in the match, the last thing they needed was their captain to lose his head. But, only minutes after being cautioned for a foul on David Brooks, Leadbitter duly collected his second after hauling down John Fleck as the Scot attempted to launch a counter-attack.
As tempers continued to simmer, Evans kept his cool and stretched United's lead just before the interval. It was a beautifully crafted goal; David Brooks deceiving his marker with a clever feint and scooping the ball towards the back of the box. The finish, another volley, was also exemplary.
Ayala, who could could himself fortunate to still be on the pitch following a series of first-half indiscretions, made the most of his reprieve by reducing the deficit moments after the restart. Stewart Downing's set-piece was helped on by George Friend and the Spaniard converted at the far post.
Sheffield United: Moore, Baldock, Stevens, O’Connell, Wright (Duffy 73), Basham, L Evans, Fleck, Lundstram (Leonard 89), Brooks, Clarke. Not used: Sharp, Lafferty, Holmes, Eastwood.
Middlesbrough: Randolph, Friend, Ayala, Shotton, Gibson, Leadbitter, Howson, Besic (Clayton 46), Traore (De Silva 46), Downing, Bamford (Assombalonga 46). Not used: Konstantopoulos, Cranie, Fry, Harrison.
Referee: Darren Bond (Lancashire). Attendance: 26,557. Star Man: Lee Evans.