Fulham versus Sheffield United: Iliman Ndiaye and Jack Robinson outshine Aleksandar Mitrovic - the Championship's most brilliant cheat code
This was supposed to be all about Aleksandar Mitrovic - and whether Sheffield United could discover a fix for the most brilliant cheat code in Championship football.
Instead, Iliman Ndiaye’s brilliance and Jack Robinson’s belligerence turned out to be the two main themes of the contest, as Fulham and their ridiculously prolific talisman became the latest victims of the visitors’ revival under Paul Heckingbottom.
Ndiaye’s early strike - superbly crafted and expertly converted - proved enough to settle a game between two sides who were competing in the Premier League only seven months ago. But Robinson was an equally influential architect of a victory which lifts United to 11th in the table and within touching distance of the play-offs. Deputising for the absent Ben Davies and marshalling a centre-forward who has 25 times since August, the often overlooked and always undervalued defender produced an almost flawless performance. When Mitrovic did escape Robinson’s clutches deep into added time, the crossbar came to his rescue.
“It was a really pleasing result,” Heckingbottom said afterwards, reminding he isn’t only a talented manager but also a master of the understatement.
With Mitrovic prowling around the six yard box and testing Wes Foderingham’s handling after a handful of seconds, things were beginning to look ominous for United before they’d even broken sweat. But goals don’t just change matches. They can alter their entire ambience too. And so it proved when, only three minutes into the contest, Ndiaye marked his return to the starting eleven by claiming a superb solo effort.
Picking up the ball near the centre circle, the 21-year-old shrugged off Jean Michael Seri, ambled nonchalantly into Fulham territory and then turned on the afterburners. Bisecting Tosin Adarabioyo and Tim Ream, Ndiaye’s finish was perfect; caressing the ball past Marek Rodak and into the bottom right hand corner of the Slovak’s net.
Despite working extensively with the Frenchman in his previous guide as United’s development coach, Heckingbottom has consistently overlooked him since taking charge last month. One suspects, as Ndiaye continued to cause Ream problems throughout the rest of the night, that selection policy is set to be revised.
As you would expect of a team which began the evening two points clear at the top of the table, Fulham dominated possession. But as is becoming the fashion, in an era where ‘XG’s’ and other metrics are afforded nearly the same importance as results, they seemingly lacked the inclination to do anything with it. A half chance from Mitrovic and Harry Wilson’s fresh air shot was the sum total of a pretty uninspiring showreel until the closing stages when the Serb tested Foderingham with a low drive before rattling the woodwork.
While Marco Silva glowered inside the technical area, Heckingbottom looked pretty pleased with how things were unfolding. And so he should, with United travelling to west London having won all of their last three outings including the two under his command. Nevertheless, Heckingbottom will be aware there are still issues to address. One of those - a habit of turning over the ball in the middle of the pitch - presented Mitrovic with an opportunity at the beginning of the second period. Fortunately, it was one he nodded into the Hammersmith End before going close - very close - in the final moments.