Sheffield United 2-0 Nottingham Forest: Chris Wilder’s team remind Leeds they will not be going away quietly after climbing back into second
There is something about strife, adversity and being portrayed as unwelcome interlopers in a supposedly private battle between the Championship's financial establishment that brings out the best in Sheffield United.
Supposedly out of the race for automatic promotion and missing a trio of their most influential names, Chris Wilder's team reminded Leeds they will not be brushed aside lightly as the battle to finish second behind leaders Norwich City enters its final three episodes.
Although Nottingham Forest found themselves at a numerical disadvantage when Yohan Belouane was sent-off soon after the interval for a foul on David McGoldrick, this result was just reward for the courage and character United demonstrated in the face of suffocating pressure.
Enda Stevens' lung-busting run, to double their lead after Mark Duffy's effort, illustrated their hunger.
"That was more like us," Wilder said, as United climbed back into the top two. "I'm not looking at anything other than ourselves. And these boys have got a bit about them."
Losing your leading goalscorer to injury and being forced to change two thirds of a defence pivotal to the way you play is hardly the ideal preparation for a crucial fixture. But that is exactly the position United found themselves in ahead of a match which saw them maintain the pressure on Marcelo Bielsa's squad. At times, the weight of expectation clearly weighed heavily upon their shoulders. However, first Duffy and then Stevens ensured a run of two straight draws did not turn into three.
"Everyone is after the big prize," Wilder acknowledged. "These are not easy games, against experienced and talented opponents."
Gary Madine, spearheading their attack in Billy Sharp's absence, was his usual combative self after confirming he wants to stay beyond the terms of his loan from Cardiff City. Martin Cranie, deputising for the injured Chris Basham and the suspended John Egan, produced whole-hearted shifts.
But until Duffy's superbly crafted finish, industry outweighed ingenuity or invention. Perhaps, given the size of the prize they are chasing, that was inevitable. Still, it was telling that two of their most naturally gifted performers ultimately made the difference. Duffy broke the deadlock with a shot of such precision it left the towering Costel Pantilimon grasping at thin air after McGoldrick, magnificent against his former employers, had drawn the foul from Benalouane which saw the Tunisian walk early in the second period. McGoldrick was claimed the assist for United's second when, following a thunderous challenge from John Fleck, he edged upfield before releasing Stevens.
"What I've told the players is that they went down to 10 because we were positive," Wilder continued. "Didzy drove it forward and that's why he (Benalouane) did what he did."
It is a measure of United's progress since climbing-out of League One less than 24 months ago that they started this match eight places above opponents who spent nearly £20m on two players alone during the close season. One of those, former Benfica youngster Joao Carvalho, missed the visit to South Yorkshire with concussion while the other, centre-forward Lewis Grabban, was named among O'Neill's substitutes.
Benalouane's exit wrecked whatever strategy the Northern Irishman had devised. But even though Duffy's sixth of the campaign swung the contest in United's favour, they still carried enough of a threat to ensure a nervous finale until Stevens pounced.
Six days earlier, as United laboured towards a draw with Millwall, there had been a sombre mood inside Bramall Lane. Nearly a week later, following some impassioned pleas for support from Wilder, the difference was palpable as the majority of the crowd roared his much-changed team on while the remainder placed a song about the Miner's Strike at the top of their hymn sheet.
That reference, even more than their respective budgets or presence of O'Neill and Roy Keane in the opposition's technical area, underlined the differences between these two clubs in 2019. One, United, is built on comradeship and camaraderie. The other, although the new regime is attempting to change its culture, has suffered from a lack of cohesion and conviction at the highest level in recent years.
There were signs of that process beginning to take shape here although, as George Baldock's thundering challenge on Jack Colback following a misplaced pass by a team mate proved, it has long since been completed in this corner of South Yorkshire.
Colback, who had earlier been cautioned for diving inside the penalty area, continued to beaver away down the flank. But as the half wore on, and Forest's initial impetus faded, United established a foothold in the fixture with McGoldrick and John Fleck causing particular problems. Indeed it was McGoldrick, moments before the interval, who came the closest the breaking the deadlock when a free-kick routine prised apart Forest's defence before his shot was blocked at the near post.
McGoldrick was in the thick of things again when, early in the second-half, Benalouane was sent-off for hauling United's centre-forward back as he bore down on Pantilimon. The Romanian was powerless to prevent Duffy's strike reaching the back of the net soon after but did produce an excellent save to deny McGoldrick as the hosts pressed for a second.
It arrived when Stevens applied the final touch to a driving move started by Fleck and embellished by McGoldrick.
Sheffield United: Henderson, O'Connell, Stearman, Cranie (Lundstram 79), Baldock, Stevens, Norwood, Fleck, Duffy, McGoldrick, Madine (Hogan 66). Not used: Moore, Dowell, Coutts, Freeman, Washington.
Nottingham Forest: Pantilimon, Colback, Wague, Cash, Yates, Lolley, Yacob (Appiah 75), Byram, Pele (Milosevic 50), Benalouane, Murphy (Grabban 58). Not used: Steele, Watson, Osborn, Ansarifard.
Referee: Andrew Madley (West Yorkshire)
Highlight: Mark Duffy's superb finish will be the abiding memory of this game. But, playing against his former club, David McGoldrick produced a performance full of industry and invention. How he found himself without a team during the close season remains one of the Championship's greatest mysteries.