Sheffield United’s 15 match unbeaten run came to an abrupt end after Amadou Bakayoko’s solitary strike gave Walsall a narrow 1-0 win at Bramall Lane.
After going five League One matches without a win, the Saddlers put in a dogged and resolute display to frustrate Chris Wilder’s men as their run of seven unbeaten league matches at the Lane was surrendered as they had a penalty saved and two goals disallowed.
Billy Sharp had a glorious chance to level six minutes from time but had his tame spot-kick saved.
They came even closer in the first minute of stoppage time after the ball was buried in by the skipper only for handball to be given. It was a night of frustration for the Blades, as they squandered their game in hand over their rivals, but boss Wilder was quick to claim that he’s fully behind his players.
“We could’ve had three or four penalties,” he said.
“They’re making genuine saves. We should stick the penalty away, should do better in the final third and in wide areas, and the players are giving me everything.
“We’re just going through a period where it’s not quite falling for us. We’ve missed some chances but the desire to play well, the desire to win a game of football is there to see. We have to come through this period.
“I’d rather play the way we want to play and have the domination. It’ll come good, it’ll come right.”
Bakayoko’s finish from inside the box three minutes before the half-time break proved to be the difference and the defeat for United meant that they failed to leapfrog Bolton – who they face in the FA Cup Second Round on Sunday – to get into the automatic promotion places ahead of their next League fixture against Swindon on 10 December, leaving them six points behind leaders Scunthorpe United.
Making just one change from Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Charlton, with Kieron Freeman coming in to replace Jake Wright and thus forcing Chris Basham to drop back into central defence from midfield, the Blades made their attacking intentions clear early on with Mark Duffy driving at the Walsall defence straight from kick-off.
The first notable chance fell to the visitors, though, when Ethan Ebanks-Landell, a hero at Bramall Lane last week thanks to his last minute winner vs Bury, gave away a free-kick that Erhun Oztumer rattled the woodwork with, leaving Simon Moore clutching at fresh air at his back post.
It was soon Moore’s opposite number, Neil Etheridge, who was scrambling to cover after Duffy’s pin-point cross met the head of Leon Clarke, with the frontman only being able to glance it wide under pressure as it dropped far of an upright.
United were lacking the zip and precision that has been evident of late, but they were up against a stubborn outfit that operated with a flat back five at times which made the job of manoeuvring the ball into striking positions difficult for the likes of Duffy, Paul Coutts and John Fleck.
Duffy, who netted in the Blades’ 1-1 draw at the weekend, then took it upon himself in an attempt to break the deadlock but could only drag his shot wide from around 40-yards.
Jack O’Connell thought he’d nodded the hosts in front when he leapt highest in the box to meet Fleck’s corner-kick routine but had his celebrations cut short when it was blocked on the line by the foot of Joe Edwards, with the former Colchester United man hacking clear at the second attempt.
Lafferty then had a chance from inside the box as Wilder’s side turned up the pressure with ten minutes of the first-half remaining, but the wing-back saw his driven effort batted away by the Saddlers’ keeper.
It proved to be a crucial save as with three minutes of the half remaining Bramall Lane was left stunned. A long ball over the top by Oztumer was met by Bakayoko and, after bringing the ball down and beating two players, the striker was left to apply the finish and poke home his second goal of the season. Against a Blades side who have been somewhat criticised for their profligacy in front of goal in recent matches, the Saddlers showed that there is only really one statistic that counts: the score-line.
It took just 50 seconds after the restart for the visitors to register a second-half shot on target with Moore having to tip wide an arrowed effort from Oztumer as the idea of sitting back and protecting their lead appeared to be against the will of Walsall.
The Blades then had a credible penalty appeal waved away as Sharp buckled under the challenge of Matt Preston inside the box, but the referee, Darren England, adjudged it to be little more than a coming together.
An intricate one-two between Duffy and Leon Clarke almost bared fruit but no-one was willing to gamble on the latter’s teasing cross that flashed along the face of goal – one touch and the Blades would’ve been level.
Wilder’s side had an equaliser chalked off after a foul was given against Clarke shortly before the ball was bundled into the net as the cheers that first echoed around Bramall Lane soon turned sour.
A hopeful penalty claim for handball against James O’Connor was emphatically waved away by the man in the middle after the Saddlers threw men in front of the ball.
United continued to dominate but when Basham fed Lafferty the latter was unable to direct his flick-on on target as it looped over the bar. It was to be Basham’s final contribution as he was sacrificed for Harry Chapman, with the youngster introduced to try and add another creative spark as the game reached its final 20 minutes. He had a chance moments after coming on and his penalty appeal after a blue and white shirt charged down his drilled strike was waved away.
A Duffy free-kick almost caught Etheridge unaware before a penalty was finally given with six minutes remaining as Fleck saw his shot handled. Sharp, who saw his last penalty saved, stepped up to take it but Etheridge was equal to his effort and dived low to his left to prevent an equaliser and give Walsall their first victory in six League One games.
United’s disallowed goal in stoppage time to dumped misery on the Bramall Lane faithful, who left with the feeling that it wasn’t their night.
Sheffield United: Moore; Basham (Chapman, 70’), Ebanks-Landell, O’Connell; Freeman, Coutts, Fleck, Lafferty (Lavery, 81’); Duffy; Sharp (C), L. Clarke. Unused subs: Hussey, Scougall, Done, Ramsdale, Brown.
Walsall: Etheridge; McCarthy, Laird, O’Connor, Preston, Morris; Dobson (Osbourne, 69’), Edwards, Chambers (C); Oztumer (Ginnelly, 69’), Bakayoko (Jackson, 77’). Unused subs: Cuvelier, MacGillivray, Kinsella, Makris.
Referee: Darren England
Bookings: Sheffield United: None
Walsall: Matt Preston (62’, foul)
Scorers: Sheffield United: None
Walsall: Amadou Bakayoko (42’)
HT Score: 0-1
FT Score: 0-1
Man of the Match: Matt Preston (Walsall)