Sheffield United beat Watford and breathe a huge sigh of relief

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Predictably, given the number of times it has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in recent years, Sheffield United can sometimes feel like a club pre-programmed to expect the worst. The sense of dread weaved into Bramall Lane’s DNA has been evident again over the past week, as a team seemingly destined for automatic promotion back to the Premier League suffered an untimely dip in form during the build up to this fixture.

The outcome of what proved to be a fractious game against Watford, combined with third-placed Middlesbrough’s set-back at West Bromwich Albion, will go a long way towards settling the nerves.

“I get why people question,” manager Paul Heckingbottom said, after watching his United side move seven points clear in second. “But we don’t change. It’s all about the points and we go three here.”

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Speaking of points, there might be none for style. But people do earn them for bottle. And persistence, as Oli McBurnie demonstrated when he forced the mistake from Ryan Porteous which settled the contest. After forcing a corner, which was taken by Oliver Norwood, the centre-forward directed the ball back across the box before the Watford defender’s touch saw it squirm through his goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann. The visitors could have restored parity as the contest reached its nervous crescendo but United, following a skirmish in the six yard box, were able to clear their lines. Cue an audible sigh of relief from the home crowd and a pump of the first from Heckingbottom.

“We showed drive,” he said. “But also composure. That’s important.”

There was a familiar look to United’s starting eleven, as Heckingbottom recalled some old favourites in an attempt to shake his team back into life. The only trouble was, Slaven Bilic has plenty of special talent at his disposal too, with the likes of Ismaila Sarr, Joao Pedro and Keinan Davis all combining to prevent the hosts establishing an early foothold in the game.

Gradually, one of those returning players began to make his presence felt. Iliman Ndiaye, who played alongside Sarr for Senegal at the World Cup, produced several flashes of brilliance during the opening exchanges with one, which saw him poleaxed by Wesley Hoedt, nearly creating an opening for Jayden Bogle. Watford, however, responded with a reminder of the threat they would continue to pose with Keinan Davis immediately darting upfield before stumbling at the vital moment. On loan from Aston Villa he glanced a header wide soon after, much to the relief of Wes Foderingham.

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“We coped with their physicality well,” Bilic said. “But we didn’t penetrate enough. The determination around the box was nowhere near.”

With both United and Watford both showing signs of taking control without ever quite managing to do so, Anel Ahmedhodzic swept just over the crossbar after receiving John Fleck’s pass while Davis made a hash of things again after meeting James Morris’ centre. United did put the ball in the back of the net just past the hour mark, when Ahmedhoidzic’s shot fell into Jayden Bogle’s path, but the wing-back was in an offside position as he headed home. Substitutes Tommy Doyle and Ben Osborn also drew saves from Bachmann before the Austrian was confused by Porteous.

"The gap won’t stay the same,” Heckingbottom said. “So just keep getting wins.”

Sheffield United: Foderingham, Bogle, Lowe (Osborn 60), Amhedhodzic, Egan ©, Robinson, Norwood, Fleck (Doyle 60), Berge, McBurnie (Sharp 80), Ndiaye (Jebbison 90). Not used: Davies, Basham, McAtee.

Watford: Bachmann, Gaspar, Choudhury, Louza (Kone 58), Davis (Araujo 81), Pedro ©, Sema (Assombalonga 78), Porteous, Sarr, Morris, Hoedt. Not used: Okoye, Cathcart, Bacuna, Kabasele.

Referee: Keith Stroud (Hampshire).

Attendance: 29,132.