SHEFFIELD UNITED 2, READING 1 - match report
Sheffield United continued their excellent start to life back in the second-tier with a 2-1 win over Reading at Bramall Lane.
Reading, as Chris Wilder made a point of mentioning before this afternoon's match, came within a penalty kick of reaching the Premier League last season.
So the manner in which Sheffield United dispatched Jaap Stam's side provides further evidence that, despite Chris Wilder's best efforts to convince folk otherwise, they are equipped to mount a serious and concerted challenge for the Premier League.
Paul Coutts and Billy Sharp scored the goals which saw United remain third in the table.and end the fixture having accumulated more points on home soil than any other club in the division since August. But Mark Duffy, who left the field to a standing ovation after being replaced by David Brooks during the closing stages, deserves a special mention. The midfielder teased and tormented Reading's defence throughout, whipping a stream of dangerous deliveries into their area and showcasing his wonderful appreciation of time and space.
Reading thrive on possession but United's determination to seize the contest by the scruff of the neck meant they were unable to enjoy any until the final period of the game.
But by then, Coutts, powering home an unstoppable shot from distance and Sharp, turning home from close-range, had already put United in the driving seat.
Roy Beerens set-up an anxious finale when he beat Jamal Blackman with five minutes remaining but United negotiated safe passage through the remainder of the fixture. Indeed, both Leon Clarke and Brooks had opportunities during added time.
As the respective benches indulged in tactical warfare - Stam opting to ditch his usual formation and go 'man to man' on Wilder's side - both sets of players quickly got down to the business of trying to seize control of the game. It was United who initially made the better fist of things, with Jack O'Connell heading a Duffy free-kick wide in the second minute, but Reading struck back by forcing two corners on the counter-attack.
Despite being a defender, O'Connell emerged as United's greatest attacking threat during the opening exchanges; another header drawing a decent reaction save from Vito Mannone before he went close following an excellent set-piece routine involving Basham and Coutts. But it was the latter who, bookended by those two chances, produced the finish which saw United deservedly break the deadlock. Clarke, with his back to goal, wriggled his way towards the centre of the area before a Reading defender managed to poke the ball away. It fell straight at Coutts feet who returned it with relish, past Mannone and into the roof of the net.
Despite scoring 30 goals during last term's League One title charge, much of Sharp's best work goes unnoticed. This was highlighted again when, six minutes before the interval, his fifth goal of the season doubled United's advantage. Moments earlier, however, he had positioned himself between marker and ball perfectly to win a free-kick which prevented Reading from building-up a head of steam. Sharp predatory instincts are priceless to this team but he contributes in so many other ways too.
Indeed, despite the quality of their play, United's work-rate was phenomenal too. Clarke never stopped thinking at one end of the pitch or, after tracking back to defend on countless occasions, working at the other. Time and time again, United found themselves with a man spare going forward as O'Connell and Basham overlapped. It was expansive but organised football from the hosts who continue their fine start to the campaign.
United and Reading had earlier made two changes apiece for today's fixture with Coutts and George Baldock returning for the hosts and Madou Barrow and Tyler Blackett recalled by the visitors. John Lundstram's performances in recent weeks meant Coutts' appearance in the starting eleven had been far from certain when Wilder had discussed his selections earlier in the week. But the temptation to utilise the services of a player he recently described as "arguably the most influential member of our squad" proved impossible to resist.
It proved an inspired move when Coutts fired United into a 19th minute lead before Sharp put them in the driving seat, tapping home unmarked at the far post after Duffy swept a low centre across the six yard line.
Although Reading looked to regain the initiative soon after interval, it was United who continued to create the better openings. Sharp was inches away from claiming his second after throwing himself at Duffy's centre while Basham tried to hook home from a tight angle.
Beerens converted from substitute John Swift's centre as the final whistle approached but United defended in numbers to make sure of the points.
Sheffield United: Blackman, O'Connell, Basham, Carter-Vickers, Baldock, Stevens, Coutts, Fleck, Duffy (Brooks 73),
Clarke, Sharp (Lundstram 81). Not used: Moore, Donaldson, Wright, Lafferty, Carruthers.
Reading: Mannone, Gunter, Van den Berg, Moore, Beerens, Aluko (Swift 66), Edwards, Barrow, Bacuna (Clement 78), Ilori, Blackett (McShane 55). Not used: Jaakkola, Kelly, Richards, Smith.
Referee: David Coote (Nottinghamshire).
Star Man: Mark Duffy.