Preston North End 0, Sheffield United 1: David McGoldrick fires The Blades back into an automatic promotion spot
Sheffield United wrestled second place in the Championship table back from Leeds as the race for automatic promotion took another twist.
David McGoldrick's goal proved enough to settle this match, played at a ridiculously breathless pace, against a dangerous Preston North End side.
One hundred miles to the south, Marcelo Bielsa's squad suffered a narrow defeat to Birmingham City and surrendered their place in the top two as a result.Chris Wilder, whose team travels to St Andrews next week, punched the air with delight when the final whistle blew.
It was a sign, even though there are still six matches remaining, that the United manager knew his team had just proved an important psychological point.
After losing to Bristol City seven days earlier, Wilder's men responded in the best way possible. In a strange sense, they will take even more satisfaction from the result because Preston made them work so hard for it.
Despite the high-stakes, neither team appeared interested in feeling their way into the game during the opening exchanges. Instead, urged on by their respective benches, both United and Preston leapt out of the blocks with Oliver Norwood nearly beating Declan Rudd from long distance and Lukas Nmecha also going close. The 20-year-old, on loan from Manchester City, drew a fine reaction save from the visiting goalkeeper. But after engineering enough time and space to pick his spot, Nmecha really should have scored.
United attempted to make the most of their reprieve, with George Baldock proving a particular source of potential assists. The wing-back peppered Rudd's box with a series of crosses. The trouble was, showing the energy levels Neil acknowledges have probably contributed to his squad's long injury list, Preston always seemed to haul just enough bodies back.
United had earlier announced one change to their starting eleven, with Mark Duffy replacing the injured Jack O'Connell. The former Brentford centre-half had been expected to recover from the calf complaint he suffered against Bristol City seven days ago. But, with Wednesday's trip to Birmingham looming on the horizon, Wilder decided not to take a risk.
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Given the threat Preston posed along their left flank, Wilder might have been regretting tasking Kieran Dowell with deputising for O'Connell rather than the more defensively minded Martin Cranie.
But for Henderson's brilliance, foiling Nmecha with his legs before parrying Callum Robinson's angled drive away to safety, the hosts could easily have turned a strong period of pressure into a healthy lead.
Those blocks turned out to be crucial when, in the 34th minute, McGoldrick prodded home from close range at the opposite end of the pitch. Norwood's corner was met by John Egan, who saw his glancing header turned away by Rudd. As the ball bounced around the six yard box, the United striker sensed an opportunity. Reacting faster than his marker, McGoldrick wheeled away in celebration after scoring for the 13th time this season.
At the beginning of the second period, Robinson really should have done the same. But after receiving Nmecha's pass, his tame shot trundled straight towards Henderson.Billy Sharp nearly meted-out the ultimate punishment when, moments later, he seized upon a defensive error before punching a hole in Preston's defence. Rudd, advancing off his line, was alert to the danger though. United's captain tried to clip the ball beyond his reach but instead saw his effort smothered.
Stevens should have extended their lead just past the hour mark following some more good work by Sharp and McGoldrick. However, despite enjoying enough time to steady himself and seemingly pick his spot, Stevens sliced over the bar as Rudd breathed a sigh of relief.
Preston North End: Rudd, Fisher, Earl, Pearson, Davies, Robinson (Moult 53), Browne, Storey, Ledson (Gallagher 65), Maguire, Nmecha (Stockley 75). Not used: Crowe, Johnson, Rafferty, Huntington.Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham, Egan, Dowell (Cranie 63), Stevens, Baldock, Norwood, Fleck, Duffy (Stearman 77), Sharp (Hogan 83), McGoldrick. Not used: Moore, Coutts, Freeman, Washington.Referee: G Ward