Sheffield United 2-0 Brentford: This was the bravest and potentially the biggest win of The Blades’ season so far
There are moments when you begin to suspect that a season, although there are still no guarantees, is destined to end in greatness. This was one of those.
Sheffield United, despite playing the vast majority of it at a numerical disadvantage following Gary Madine's sending-off, secured the win they required to remain on the coat tails of second-placed Norwich City with a display of tremendous courage, guile and resilience.
Oliver Norwood's first-half penalty and substitute David McGoldrick's 12th for the club ensured Chris Wilder's side negotiated safe passage through last night's game, against a Brentford side whose top six hopes are now surely over for another year at least.
But United owed their victory, and remarkably given the opposition's technical prowess a sixth successive clean sheet, to the bravery of Wilder's players, the manager's tactical accumen and, when required, Dean Henderson's brilliance. The hosts, who are a point behind Daniel Farke's side, have now gone nearly 10 hours without conceding a goal.
"It is wins like this which can define an entire campaign," Thomas Frank, the Brentford manager, said. "United were fantastic, full credit to Chris and his boys. I can see them going straight up."
If United could have chosen their opposition for the midweek round of fixtures before Saturday's pivotal showdown with new leaders Leeds, Brentford would have been well down the list. Even before Madine's premature exit left them with a major problem.
The Londoners, fresh from a morale-boosting win over Middlesbrough, move the ball as well as anyone in the second tier of English football and possess a fair amount of pace. Those two qualities, aided and abetted by the centre-forward's poor judgement, ensured an uncomfortable 90 minutes of viewing for Wilder and his staff who spent much of it deep in conversation by the dug-outs.
If the ability to cope with pressure is a pre-requisite for any promotion chasing side, United demonstrated they will not be easily knocked-out of the top two race both before and after Norwood's spot-kick. Indeed, it was Brentford who had created the two best opportunities until George Baldock was upended inside the area.
The Northern Ireland international converted but an even tougher test was to follow when Madine was dismissed for a challenge on Yoann Barbet, whose foul on United's wing-back had presented their captain with his opportunity.
The former Sheffield Wednesday striker has successfully won over the doubters among his latest club's support base since completing a controversial loan move from Cardiff City. But his red card, seemingly borne out of frustration after several mis-timed touches, would have proved costly were it not for his colleagues' bravery.
Wilder, already mindful of the fact that the only predictable thing about this division is its unpredictability, had earlier suggested that Brentford, despite starting the evening in the bottom half of the table, could not be ruled-out of the play-off race.
Frank, who has publicly refused to be drawn on their chances, doubtless agreed privately and, in a statement of intent, named both Ollie Watkins with Neal Maupay in attack. By tasking the £20m rated youngster with supporting Maupay, who two months ago was on the verge of becoming the most expensive player in the competition's history after attracting Aston Villa's interest, the Dane revealed his hand. Brentford had not arrived intent to work on the counter. Instead, as Said Benrahama's surging run deep into United territory straight from kick-off proved, they were determined to seize control of the contest and play on the front foot.
With United possessing an equally aggressive mentality, the stage appeared to be set for furious shoot-out between two expansive teams. It was, with United continuing to search for opportunities and the visitors forging plenty of their own until McGoldrick put the match beyond reach.
Scott Hogan and Watkins exchanged chances early on, with the former Brentford striker inches away from getting what would surely have been a decisive touch on a low cross, before Madine glanced wide from John Fleck's corner.
Moments later, having been called-up by Sitland earlier in the day, Fleck saw a rasping drive fly just wide of Luke Daniels' upright. But Henderson had been the busier of the two goalkeepers, denying both Maupay and Barbet, before Norwood converted from the spot.
Madine's exit changed the entire dynamic of the fixture although, substitute David McGoldrick ensured Brentford had to remain alert by forcing Daniels' to save at the beginning of the second-half.
Henderson parried at full stretch to deny Maupay after the Frenchman had edged ominously into position while Jack O'Connell, Enda Stevens and Baldock all made important blocks. United profited from a stroke of good fortune too when Kamohelo Mokotjo saw an attempt rebound back off the post.
Referee Tony Harrington might have produced a second red card during the closing stages when Julian Jeanvier appeared to take a kick at Billy Sharp after bringing the United man down. Either offence, with Sharp looking to dart clean through on goal, could easily have warranted further punishment. But the official, much to the annoyance of the crowd, refused to award even a free-kick. McGoldrick eased their frustration, and their nerves, when he nodded home from an O'Connell header.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham, Egan, O'Connell, Stevens, Baldock (Sharp 60), Norwood, Fleck, Dowell (Cranie 46), Madine, Hogan (McGoldrick 46). Not used: Moore, Coutts, Stearman, Duffy.
Brentford: Daniels, Odubajo (Emiliano 62), Mokotjo, Benrahma, Dalsgaard (Forss 89), Jeanvier, Konsa (Canos 62), Barbet, Sawyers, Watkins, Maupay. Not used: Gunnarsson, McEachran, Dasilva, Sorensen.
Referee: Tony Harrington (County Durham).