Sheffield United 2 Wolves 0: Clarke brace takes Blades up to second
Such is the excitement surrounding David Brooks, Sheffield United's media team have even taken to posting clips of the youngster scoring goals during the pre-match warm-up on social media.
But, as Leon Clarke proved during last night’s victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers, the Wales under-21 international is not the only member of Chris Wilder’s side capable of striking fear into the hearts of a Championship defence.
Fresh from his barnstorming performance against Sheffield Wednesday during Sunday’s Steel City derby success, the centre-forward scored twice for the second match in a row to send United second in the table and only two points behind leaders Cardiff City.
Wolves, who spent the majority of the contest at the numerical disadvantage following Conor Coady’s sending-off, inevitably cited that incident as the defining moment of the game. But, with over £30m worth of talent at their disposal, including Portugal international Ruben Neves, there was precious little sympathy for their predicament among a near 26,000 crowd at Bramall Lane.
“We want to make memories,” Wilder said. “It’s mindblowing what’s happening at Wolves, with the quality they’ve got even on the bench, so however people look at it, this is a fantastic result.”
Clarke, who made over 250 appearances for the visitors across two spells at Molineux, has been an enigma for much of his career. But, having joined United at the beginning of last term, he is finally producing the type of brutally effective displays which have persuaded 17 managers to take a chance on his talents.
Not only were these his third and fourth goals of what is threatening to become another memorable campaign, but they brought his tally to 10 in his previous 13 outings after finishing last season’s march to the League One title with an explosive flourish.
“We know what Leon is about and what he can do,” Wilder said. “We’re just delighted that he showing everyone else.”
This was a significant match, from United’s perspective at least, for a variety of different reasons.
Not only did it pit them against arguably the most financially powerful club in the division - Chinese conglomerate Fosun International have pumped millions into Wolves’ coffers since completing its taleover 14 months ago - but it also saw them move into the automatic promotion places after passing the 10 game landmark.
“That’s when people usually start to judge,” Wilder had insisted beforehand. “That’s the time when we usually reckon things are taking shape.”
If that is true then, arguably his greatest challenge over the coming weeks, will be persuading folk that consolidation is the limit of United’s ambitions between now and May. Intelligent, incisive and tactically astute, this result suggests there is no reason whatsoever why than can not begin aiming much higher than that.
“The only thing we look at is the next game,” Wilder, whose team travels to Nottingham Forest this weekend, continued. “But if we do have to start dealing with increased expectations, well, that’s a problem we’d obviously love to have.”
Coady’s dismissal undoubtedly made United’s task much easier than might otherwise have been the case. But, as Wilder later pointed-out, it was the hosts’ impetus and aggression which pressurised the defender into what would prove a costly slip. Despite initially appearing to be in control of the situation, Coady was overwhelmed by Clarke’s power and turn of pace. Having hauled down the United centre-forward as he charged towards the penalty area, referee Peter Bankes had little choice but to act.
When Clarke powered home from close-range during the closing stages of the first-half, Wolves appeared dead and buried. But, credit to Nuno Espirito Santo’s players, they toiled, chased and battled only to give up the ghost when Neves, a £15.8m signing from Porto, fluffled his lines from a 50th minute spot-kick.
“We were up against a fantastic side with fantastic staff,” Wilder said. “So you’ve got to give full credit to my lads for their approach.”
Despite the emotional and physical demands of last weekend’s visit to Hillsborough, Wilder resisted the temptation to rotate his squad. It was a calculated gamble on the 50-year-old’s part but one which paid-off in spectacular style.
A mistake from Cameron Carter-Vickers presented Leo Bonatini with a golden opportunity to open the scoring but the Brazilian, on loan from Al-Hilal, shot tamely at Jamal Blackman. It was a miss Wolves would live to regret, not least because the action swung decisively in United’s favour soon after.
Jack O’Connell had the visitors’ defence scrambling when, following a trademark driving run from Brooks, he met John Fleck’s corner at the far post. John Ruddy, who prevented the ball from crossing the line with the help of Danny Batth, was called into action again when, following Coady’s dismissal, Fleck sent a fiercely struck free-kick flying past the wall.
Clarke, whose physical prowess had earlier forced the former United loanee to commit the foul which left Bankes with no option but to send him off, was in the thick of the action again midway through the opening period. But, not for the first time, Ruddy came to the visitors’ rescue with a brave block at the centre-forward’s feet. But he was powerless to prevent Clarke breaking the deadlock in the 39th minute; sliding home Stevens’ superb cross.
Wolves were fortunate to be awarded a penalty five minutes after the interval when Cameron Carter-Vickers was adjudged to have clipped Diogo Jota. Neves, a veteran of 20 Champions League matches, was confidence personsified as he stepped-up to place the ball. But justice was probably served when, despite beating Blackman, he smashed it against the right-hand upright.
Clarke rubbed salt into Wolves wounds when he headed home a Mark Duffy set-piece before being withdrawn, to a standing ovation, with 10 minutes remaining.
Sheffield United: Blackman, O’Connell, Wright (Duffy 56), Carter-Vickers, Baldock, Stevens (Lafferty 46), Coutts, Fleck, Basham, Clarke (Evans 80), Brooks. Not used: Moore, Lundstram, Sharp, Duffy, Carruthers.
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Ruddy, Doherty, Douglas, N’Diaye, Batth, Neves (Cavaleiro 64), Coady, Costa (Saiss 19), Jota, Miranda, Bonatini (Enobakhare 46). Not used: Marshall, Price, Vanagre, Norris.
Referee: Peter Bankes (Merseyside).