QPR v Sheffield United: Three goals and lashings of bottle see The Blades take a huge leap towards the play-offs
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This, Sheffield United’s jubilant manager Paul Heckingbottom acknowledged afterwards, was one of those occasions.
Trailing to Charlie Austin’s goal and in danger of suffering what would have been a hugely damaging defeat at the hands of Queens Park Rangers, Iliman Ndiaye, Jack Robinson and substitute Conor Hourihane turned the fixture on its head and ensured their club took a giant leap towards the play-offs.
Sixth in the Championship table with one match remaining on their regular season schedule, a magnificent second-half display oozing both craft and sheer courage saw United open up a five point gap over seventh-placed Middlesbrough ahead of their meeting with Stoke City.
Remarkably, United’s evening had begun on a downbeat note. Defender George Baldock, supposedly cleared to start despite receiving treatment for an injury, was nowhere to be seen when their selections were unveiled. But even worse was the absence of captain Billy Sharp, with the visitors’ leading scorer apparently damaging a calf muscle on the eve of the contest. Heckingbottom tried his best to sound upbeat afterwards. But having described Sharp’s return to fitness following a hamstring issue as a “huge boost” beforehand, there is no disguising the fact Heckingbottom’s side are still poorer without him.
Certainly, United would have benefited from someone of the 36-year-old’s prowess and experience during the opening exchanges of the contest as, after creating and then spurning a number of openings, they predictably conceded before eventually overwhelming the opposition.
Austin might have entered the game on the back of a long barren run, having last found the back of the net during Rangers’ victory over West Bromwich Albion in January. But finishers of his calibre don’t pass-up the type of chance he was presented with when, having seen Enda Stevens fail to close down Albert Adomah, he comfortably beat Chris Basham to the Ghana international’s cross.
If Heckingbottom was hoping for a quick response he was initially disappointed. After the action was briefly paused so he could break his Ramadan fast as the sun set over west London, Ndiaye’s pace and trickery troubled Rangers’ rearguard on a couple of occasions. But it wasn’t until Robinson saw a header palmed clear that Murphy Mahoney was tested. Ndiaye had earlier overhit a through ball towards the unmarked Sander Berge, whose own piece of trickery later set in motion the chain of events which ended with Stevens seeing a low drive blocked.
With three-quarters-of-an-hour to salvage the fixture and potentially their top-flight ambitions, United began the second period in much more convincing fashion. Morgan Gibbs-White introduced himself with a rasping effort which Sam McConnell did well to scramble off the line. Then Robinson saw a header parried to safety.
But with Gibbs-White also hitting the woodwork moments later, few people inside the stadium were surprised when Rangers’ resistance finally broke; Ndiaye firing home his sixth of the campaign following a scramble on the edge of the six yard box.
With the momentum shifting decisively in their favour, United finally made their dominance pay during the closing stages when Robinson found the back of the net after connecting with Basham’s header.
Hourihane’s thunderous strike, from Berge’s excellent assist, quashed Rangers’ hopes of a comeback.