Match Report: Reading 1, Sheffield United 3 - Blades march back into play-off positions as Billy Sharp hits brace

Joy for two-goal skipper Sharp
Joy for two-goal skipper Sharp
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This was both the result and performance Chris Wilder, despite his public indifference, had been privately longing for.

Four days after dismissing their play-off credentials following a shock defeat in Hull, the Sheffield United manager watched his team climb to sixth in the table after out-working, out-thinking and more importantly out-scoring Reading during a match of huge significance at both ends of the division.

Billy Sharp was the biggest beneficiary of a display which suggests that shock loss was merely a false step rather than the start of a season-ending malaise. The United captain claimed his 12th and 13th goals of the season either side of Mark Duffy's memorable effort as Reading, despite Omar Richard's second-half strike, were plunged deeper into trouble.

Injuries to Leon Clarke and Jamal Blackman were the only disappointments of a fixture which saw United go some way towards returning to their energetic and inventive best, although substitute Simon Moore did save a Leandro Bacuna penalty.

One of the most decorated centre-halves of the modern era, the knowledge Stam acquired during a glittering career is not being put to good use. Whether they are unwilling or unable to adopt the skills he honed with the likes of Manchester United, Milan and Ajax, Reading's defending would barely cut it in the Meadowhall Sunday League, let alone the Championship.

So, after presenting United with several gilt-edged chances, it was no surprise when Sharp converted one. The 32-year-old, who has now scored 43 times in his last 76 outings for the visitors, slid home from close range following Clarke's assist.

Simon Moore celebrates his spot-kick save in the second half

Simon Moore celebrates his spot-kick save in the second half

If United owed their lead to Reading's kamikaze streak, their second goal of the contest was all about individual class. There appeared to be little danger of even Stam's side conceding when Duffy picked-up the ball on the corner of the box. But, underlining the quality which makes him an indispensable member of Wilder's squad, he deposited in the back of the net with such nonchalance even the Dutchman must have been tempted to applaud had it not been for the boos echoing around the Madejski Stadium.

So total was United's dominance, so naive was the opposition's work, Wilder's only cause for complaint at the end of the first-half was that his side did not lead by more. It was something Richards, introduced when Garath McClearly became the first victim of the snow covered pitch, gave him cause to reflect on when his scrambled effort handed Reading a lifeline they could have taken but for Bacuna's miss.

Despite claiming not to be bothered about United's display against last season's beaten play-off finalists - comments the opposition's local newspaper described as "bizarre" - it would be a mistake to take Wilder's words at face value. Angered by both their result against Nigel Adkins' side and the manner in which it came about, his comments immediately after that car crash at the KCOM Stadium were also tinged with embarrassment.

But Wilder, as passionate a United supporter as any of the hardy souls who made their way to Berkshire last night, also hoped his response would provoke a reaction. It did; and in some style.

Billy Sharp celebrates

Billy Sharp celebrates

Having placed the responsibility on United's players to put their promotion challenge back on track, it was no surprise to see Wilder make only one change to the starting eleven beaten in East Yorkshire. Duffy, who replaced Ryan Leonard at the apex of midfield, attempted to make the most of his recall by unleashing an early shot from the edge of Vito Mannone's box but the shot was blocked.

There was another reprieve when Clarke, seizing possession on the edge of the area, was unable to convert a chance he had done so much to create. But with Reading seemingly intent on gifting United opportunities, it was a matter of 'when' not 'if' the breakthrough would come. Predictably it was Sharp who broke the deadlock after only 11 minutes after being released by his fellow centre-forward.

Clayton Donaldson, who replaced Clarke midway through the opening period, was inches away from extending United's advantage after combining with Duffy after Lee Evans had also gone close. Instead, that honour fell to Duffy, whose exquisite 44th minute finish left Mannone grasping at the ice cold air.

Richards reduced deficit when Moore parried Bacuna's free-kick away from the foot of the near post before the fixture swung decisively in United's favour during three eventful minutes. First, with an hour gone, Bacuna saw his penalty swatted to safety by United's goalkeeper following Richard Stearman's foul on Liam Kelly.

While Reading attempted to clear their heads, Sharp punished the Curaçao international's miss by prodding home his second of the evening and United's third.

Reading: Mannone, Gunter, Van Den Berg, Moore, McCleary (Richards 6), Bacuna (G Evans 69), Ilori (Smith 74), Clement, Bodvarsson, Martin, Kelly. Not used: Edwards, Barrow, Blackett, Jaakkola.

Sheffield United: Blackman (Moore 33), O'Connell, Stearman, Basham, Stevens, Baldock, L Evans, Fleck, Duffy (Leonard 81), Clarke (Donaldson 33), Sharp. Not used: Lundstram, Lafferty, Holmes, C Evans.

Referee: Andrew Davies (Hampshire). Attendance: 6,769. Star Man: Billy Sharp