Chris Wilder’s suspicions that Charlton Athletic would pose a much sterner test than their league position suggests proved correct at Bramall Lane this afternoon.
Goals from Jack O’Connell and Daniel Lafferty extended Sheffield United’s lead over second-placed Bolton Wanderers to nine points, after falling behind to Ricky Holmes’ early effort, they were pushed all the way by opponents who have acquitted themselves well against the competition’s leading clubs despite failing to mount a promotion push of their own.
The contest served to remind that, even though Wilder’s charges remain clear favourites to reach the Championship, there are still plenty of awkward hurdles to overcome before their place in the second-tier is confirmed.
Holmes’ strike was no more than Charlton deserved as they came flying out of the blocks. But first O’Connell and then Lafferty put United back in control. Although United grew in stature as the contest unfolded, Wilder will recognise the final result could easily have been different. But, demonstrating the resilience and ruggedness which, combined with no little skill has served them so well this season, his squad came through.
After surviving their poor start relatively unscathed, United improved as the afternoon wore on with Lafferty edging them in front with a clinical finish. The Northern Ireland international, who has been placed on stand-by for the forthcoming World Cup qualifier against Norway, nearly extended their advantage during the closing stages but were seldom in complete control.
Wilder had called for ruthless finishing and cool heads before kick-off. What he got, until O’Connell turned home from close-range, was frayed nerves and chaos. United’s defence was all at sea as Charlton swarmed forward in attack. Holmes’ perfectly executed set-piece, after Paul Coutts had brought down Forster-Caskey, sent Robinson into raptures on the touchline. But, although his side was unfortunate not to extend its lead, the former MK Dons’ chief’s joy was short-lived as O’Connell eventually restored calm and parity.
Charlton, despite failing to live-up to expectations this term, have developed a reputation for performing against the division’s bigger clubs. Certainly that was the case here as they showed no signs of being overawed by either the crowd or the opposition. United had their moments but, for the most part, Charlton dragged them this way and that with some purposeful passing in midfield. Moves broke down on the edge of Simon Moore’s penalty area. But United looked far from assured.
Forster-Caskey, once linked with a move to Bramall Lane, was the catalyst behind Charlton’s best moments. Pressing, probing and perfectly willing to take on his marker himself, the 22-year-old caused United all sorts of problems throughout a difficult first-half. As the interval approached, United finally began to establish a foothold in the game. But, just like at the other end of the pitch, the decisive ball proved difficult to pick.
It was a problem Kieron Freeman solved at the beginning of the second period when, spotting Lafferty in space, he carved the opening for his fellow wing-back to score. The fact they have scored 12 times between them so far this term speaks volumes about the style of United’s play.
Inevitably, however, that commitment to attacking football sometimes leaves them vulnerable at the back; a weakness Ezri Konsa nearly exploited soon after only to scoop well wide.
Such is the depth of options at Wilder’s disposal, selecting a starting eleven is no easy task. Although some players - Billy Sharp, John Fleck, Paul Coutts and Moore - are United’s version of Mourinho’s “untouchables”, others are locked in a weekly battle for their place. Jay O’Shea and Caolan Lavery both discovered that goals are no guarantee of a spot in Wilder’s first choice eleven when, having scored against Swindon Town four days earlier, they were named on the bench. The return of Mark Duffy and James Hanson injected some extra experience into United’s ranks but, for the opening 13 minutes, they appeared anything but.
Indeed, after Charlton’s captain Holmes had fired the visitors in front, they were fortunate not to fall further behind when Tony Watt hit the woodwork.
O’Connell pounced in the 14th minute, scrambling home Duffy’s centre at the near post before Fleck had a 30th minute appeal for a penalty waved away after being sent tumbling in the box. The Scot, together with Hanson, flung himself at Sharp’s low centre as United seized the initiative towards the break. Neither could connect but, with Ethan Ebanks-Landell twice going close, it meant Charlton had something to think about at last.
Laffrerty gave them even more when, four minutes into the second-half, he claimed his third goal of the season.
Just like United earlier, Charlton used that as the cue to improve although Ezri Konsa and Holmes both spurned good opportunities as the hosts’ rearguard creaked. Samir Carruthers, on for Duffy, and Chris Basham responded with near misses of their own.
Lafferty also went close after an intense period of United pressure but the scoreline remained the same.
Sheffield United: Moore, Ebanks-Landell, Basham, O’Connell, Lafferty, Freeman, Coutts (O’Shea 85), Fleck, Duffy (Carruthers 63), Hanson (Lavery 74), Sharp. Not used: Long, Done, Wright, Chapman.
Charlton Athletic: Rudd, Chicksen (Dasilva 84), Bauer, Watt, Holmes, Konsa, Ulvestad (Botaka 81), Forster-Caskey (Crofts 74), Byrne, Novak, Teixeiea. Not used: Jackson, Crofts, Phillips, Ahearne-Grant, Hanlan.
Referee: Scott Duncan (Tyne and Wear).