Sheffield United 4, Reading 0: Gary Madine scores twice as Chris Wilder’s men move up to second
A combination of injury, suspension and his squad's new found strength in depth have made Chris Wilder's team selections increasingly difficult to predict in recent weeks.
But there is something reassuringly predictable about its results, with Reading the latest Championship club to witness what can happen when Sheffield United build a head of steam.
This win, their sixth in a row on home soil in the Championship and second in the space of a week, lifts Wilder's men back into the automatic promotion places behind leaders Norwich City and above Leeds, who have a game in hand.
It also vindicated his decision to again ring the changes, with Gary Madine claiming a brace after Kieron Freeman had opened the floodgates.
Only the sight of Oliver Norwood collecting his ninth booking of the season - another, against West Bromwich Albion next weekend will rule him out of the visit to Sheffield Wednesday - and the sight of Freeman hobbling off caused United any concern.
Madine, whose efforts were bookended by strikes from John Fleck and the Wales wing-back, has impressed with his power and technical prowess since arriving on loan from Cardiff City last month. Indeed, it would be easy to forget the centre-forward entered this afternoon's fixture searching for his first goal since January 2018. Although that run will have been a frustration, the finishes which helped put José Manuel Gomes's side to the sword suggested it has not gnawed away at his confidence.
With Scott Hogan also producing a lively display in attack - he was unfortunate not to find the target himself - Wilder could afford a smug, self-satisfied grin when he headed down the tunnel following the final whistle.
Not so Gomes, whose relegation threatened charges demonstrated plenty of persistence but very little punch. Combined with the defensive frailties United exposed, the Portuguese must use all of his experience to try and prevent Reading sliding into League One only two years after reaching the play-off final.
Despite his reputation for plain-speaking, Wilder is not averse to employing a bit of spin. Jack O'Connell, whose participation had been hinted at ahead of kick-off, missed his second game in succession with a hamstring complaint while fellow defender Chris Basham was serving the second game of a two match ban. With George Baldock already ruled-out with a calf muscle complaint, Wilder resisted the temptation to start with largely the same eleven which had finished Wednesday night's victory over Middlesbrough by recalling Marvin Johnson and Freeman instead. But it was the sight of Hogan and Madine leading the line, rather than McGoldrick and Sharp, which caught the vast majority of those in attendance on the hop.
Although neither centre-forward was involved in the build-up to United's opener, Reading were seemingly bewildered too as Freeman, making his first appearance since last month's FA Cup defeat by Barnet, slid the ball home from close range. The defender, whose form had tailed off long before that third round loss, deserves credit for seizing the opportunity he had been granted. But it would be remiss not to congratulate Duffy for his moment of brilliance, spinning away from his marker before producing a near perfect cross, for his part in the breakthrough too.
Another goal should have followed soon after when John Egan, after Madine and Martin Cranie had exchanged headers inside the penalty area, directed another over the crossbar. But the centre-half got his angles exactly right when he prevented Modou Barrow's centre from reaching Nelson Oliveira soon after. It proved to be a crucial intervention when Madine doubled United's advantage by firing a powerful drive into the back of Emiliano Martinez's net. Like Duffy before him, John Fleck's assist was also worthy of mention.
Reading, who mustered their first shot on target in the 25th minute, sometimes threatened on the break but lacked any punch in attack. It was a strange scenario, given Nelson Oliveira's presence but also testimony to the work of United's defence.
Yakou Meite's effort, comfortably gathered by Dean Henderson, brought an immediate response in the shape of an attempt from Fleck and a great header from Madine which was close to being prodded home by Hogan.
Madine's second and United's third eventually arrived two minutes before the interval, when Marvin Johnson's cross was powered into the roof of the net. Despite profiting from a wicket deflected off Matt Miazga's heel, there was an air of inevitability when Fleck grabbed the fourth from 20 yards out.
Sheffield United: Henderson, Cranie, Egan, Stevens, Freeman (Stearman 78), Johnson, Norwood (Coutts 72), Fleck, Duffy, Madine (Dowell 84), Hogan. Not used: S Moore, Lundstram, Sharp, McGoldrick.
Reading: Martinez, Yiadom, L Moore, Baker, Barrow, Ejarla (Bodvarsson 46), Miazga, Meite, Oliveira (McCleary 75), Richards, Kelly (Swift 19). Not used: Gunter, O'Shea, Harriott,Walker.
Referee: Robert Jones