Sheffield United went two points off the top of the Championship with a comfortable 2-1 victory over Reading at Bramall Lane.
First-half goals from Paul Coutts and captain Billy Sharp punished a disjointed and messy Reading side that rarely threatened a stern and impressive United who recorded their fourth win in five games.
Despite Roy Beerens making for a tense last five minutes when he slotted home unopposed, the Blades managed to survive swathes of attacks in the dying embers of the match, and it left Chris Wilder slightly frustrated that his side couldn’t keep a clean-sheet after such a dominant display but proud with the way in which they defended late on.
“We drove the game,” he said.
“The key is that we see it out. We had some tired legs out there which I would expect.
“We know there’s a hell of a long way to go. We are delighted and enjoying the ride.
“We respect that we are going to have to defend at times and we are not embarrassed by that.
“We are going in the right direction and you can’t get away from that.”
If there’s a Championship team that have dealt with everything thrown at them this season then it’s Sheffield United.
Romping to the League One title last season was impressive enough, yet the Blades keep smashing target after target.
While Reading’s current flirtation with relegation is a surprise to many after missing out on promotion to the Premier League on penalties in the play-off final last term, there’s no question they’ve got the players but they look bereft of confidence and ideas, and spent the afternoon chasing the shadows of the men in red and white.
With an astute tactician in Manchester United legend Jaap Stam, the visitors are well-drilled but are perhaps feeling the full effects of falling at the last hurdle after being narrowly pipped by Huddersfield Town in May.
It makes, then, Sheffield United’s performance even more impressive.
They were forced to show a different side to their game in their 1-0 win over Ipswich Town last week, a kind of resilience and patience that can only bear fruit with a team that work as hard for each other as this set of players do under Wilder.
While it took the first quarter of an hour to really threaten, it came as a result of astute build-up play, with Leon Clark stabbing wide from Enda Stevens’ cut-back.
And if that was close then Coutts went one step further upon his return to the starting line-up following a one-game suspension.
The midfielder who, at the start of the game had made the most successful passes of any Championship player this season, showed a different element to his game, curling home a first-time, left-footed effort from 20-yards that flew into the top-corner.
Wilder’s decision to bring him back into the picture at the expense of John Lundstram, who impressed in Coutts’ absence, paid off.
And Vito Mannone, who was the hero thanks to his last-gasp penalty save in their 1-0 win over Leeds – their first victory since August 26 – could do nothing to prevent his side from going behind this time.
Reading’s confidence appeared to collapse with Stam cutting a frustrated figure on the touchline.
The pace of United’s Duffy, coupled with John Fleck’s tidy close-control, forced the Royals to set-up camp in their own half.
Sone Aluko, a £7.5m summer signing from Fulham, tried to drag his side up the pitch but was outmuscled on more than one occasion as the United back three remained solid.
It was time for the Blades to make the most of a dominant first-half with Duffy rolling the ball to Billy Sharp to double their lead. The skipper stroked into an empty net for his fifth of the campaign, completing his return from an injury that kept him out of action for a few weeks.
Beerens’ effort from long-range forced Jamal Blackman to dive and cover his near post, but it was the only moment that Reading yielded as they went into the break trailing 2-0.
As is always the case with the Blades, they came out strong in the second-half and, if it wasn’t for Mannone’s save from close-range, Sharp would have doubled his tally after powerfully meeting Duffy’s free-kick from the right.
Reading began to lose discipline as the Blades started to swarm and put the game beyond doubt, with Joey van den Berg and Paul McShane, who had been on the pitch a matter of seconds, booked within a minute.
United’s work seemed completed but still they kept hassling and harrying, straining the Royals’ back-line even further, forcing them to play desperate balls that were mopped up with ease.
The introduction of John Swift for Aluko gave Reading’s three-pronged attack a bit more of an edge but then Wilder countered by bringing on David Brooks.
The 20-year-old signed a new four-year deal at Bramall Lane during the week after some sustained interest from some Premier League clubs; a reward for his dazzling performances of late and a statement of ‘hand’s off’ from his boss.
Reading did ensure there was a nervy last five minutes, though, as Beerens tapped home at the back-post to halve the deficit.
Clarke had the perfect opportunity to put the game beyond doubt when he latched onto Brooks’ lobbed pass, but the frontman took too much time in picking his spot that Mannone was on hand to block away.
Damage had already been done by Wilder’s men, though, who were on hand to execute some last-ditch challenges in the five minutes of injury time, condemning Reading to their sixth league defeat of the season.
It left their boss, Stam, justifiably frustrated at the final whistle.
He said: “Disappointed. That’s my feeling as we do not play the first-half how we should.
“They are a team in form, they go into their rhythm and that’s what happens.
“Up to now they’re doing a great job.”
Sheffield United: Blackman; Basham, Carter-Vickers, O’Connell; Baldock, Coutts, Duffy (Brooks, 72’), Fleck, Stevens; Clarke, Sharp (C) (Lundstram, 81’). Subs not used: Moore, Donaldson, Wright, Lafferty, Carruthers.
Reading: Mannone; Gunter (C), Moore, Ilori, Blackett (McShane, 55’); Edwards, van den Berg, Bacuna (Clement, 77’); Barrow, Aluko (Swift, 66’), Beerens. Subs not used: Jaakkola, Kelly, Richards, Smith.
Referee: David Coote
Scorers: Sheffield United: Paul Coutts (19’), Billy Sharp (37’)
Reading: Roy Beerens (85’)
Bookings: Sheffield United: David Brooks (90+3’)
Reading: Joey van den Berg (56’), Paul McShane (57’)
HT Score: 2-0
FT Score: 2-1
Man of the Match: Paul Coutts (Sheffield United)