Norwich City 2, Sheffield United 2: Billy Sharp scores twice as Chris Wilder’s players showcase their self-belief
A match which saw both clubs involved pull every trick in the book to try and engineer a result finished all square as Sheffield United and Norwich City demonstrated why they are among the leading contenders in the race for promotion from the Championship.
Teemu Pukki's strike, after Billy Sharp had netted the first of his brace from the penalty spot following Onel Hernandez's opener, appeared to have put Daniel Farke's second-placed side on course for a crucial win.
But even though City caused all manner of problems before the interval, they could never quite shake Chris Wilder's men off. Indeed, when Sharp pounced for the second time, the visitors were in the ascendancy.
United, who redecorated their dressing room with motivational images before kick-off, showed commendable self-belief to twice come behind at Carrow Road. Predictably it was their captain and leading goalscorer who clawed them back into the contest by scoring for the 18th and 19th time this season.
But as their manager later acknowledged, this performance was all about the group. Having caught the eye with their pioneering tactics and enterprising play, United showed a different side to to their nature in Norfolk.
The gutsy streak responsible which enabled them to bounce back from two potentially devastating blows could prove crucial over the coming months.
Hernandez's finish confirmed United's suspicions that, despite experiencing some chequered results of late, City would pose one of their sternest tests of the season so far. The execution, combined the way it was crafted, revealed why Farke's men began the afternoon in an automatic promotion berth. But in general it was the speed of their play, combined with the numbers they committed forward, which caused the visitors' most problems.
Although United were far from their swashbuckling best, something which could be attributed to the quality of the opponents' football, there were extremely durable. That strength of character and sheer bloody-mindedness received its reward when Sharp's penalty and then header drew them level.
With Madine and Dowell ushered into the starting eleven following impressive cameos at Swansea City last week, Wilder resisted the temptation to stick with the tried and tested line-up which has served United well in recent weeks.
Across the technical area, Farke elected not to reshuffle his options although, with several of his biggest names still confined to the treatment room, that was more through necessity rather than choice.
Despite some high-profile absentees, plenty of talent remains at the German's disposal. It was one such player, Hernandez, who fired the first shot of what proved an early spell of pressure from the hosts with Dean Henderson doing well to scramble across his line before parrying a long-range effort around the post. But the Cuban-born winder made no mistake in the 10th minute when, released by Pukki's clever short pass, he steered home beyond the onrushing goalkeeper.
United showed some flashes of promise, with Madine and Sharp suggesting they can go on to form a profitable partnership. But for the most part, until Madine saw a low drive blocked after half an hour, it was City who continued to look the more dangerous.
Dowell sliced high and wide as John Fleck and Oliver Norwood began to establish a foothold in the contest. It was the former, finding pockets of space and then driving the play forward, who was instrumental in helping United change the fixture's dynamic.
Madine was in the thick of things, with a City defending preventing his attempt from inside the area reaching Tim Krul before pleading referee James Linington to award him a penalty following a tangle with Christoph Zimmermann. The home captain's challenge was clumsy and the ball nowhere near. But the official did not believe is deserving of punishment.
But Linington did censure Emi Buendia, who had earlier gone close at the other end of the pitch, for a shove on Enda Stevens seconds before the interval. From one angle, it appeared a slightly soft decision. But Sharp, ignoring Krul's ridiculous delaying tactics, was in no mood to give City the benefit of the doubt and duly rifled home from the spot.
United were in the ascendancy at the beginning of the second period, with Sharp seeing a flicked header bounce back off the crossbar, but fell behind again in the 55th minute. Max Aarons received the ball in slightly fortutious circumstances but the placement of the ball was perfect. Likewise when Sharp, peeling off his marker's shoulder, headed home substitute Mark Duffy's centre.
Norwich City: Krul, Godfrey, Zimmermann, Vranic, Lewis, Buendia (Cantwell 89), Stiepermann (Rhodes 89), Trybull, Pukki, Hernandez, Aarons. Not used: McGovern, McLean, Passlack, Hanley, Srbeny.Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham, Egan, O'Connell, Stevens, Baldock, Norwood, Fleck, Dowell (Duffy 60), Sharp (Washington 90), Madine (McGoldrick 60). Not used: Moore, Coutts, Stearman, Johnson..Referee: James Linington (Newport).