Sheffield United kept pace with the league’s top two after a 1-0 win over 10-man Middlesbrough.
Richard Stearman’s header just after the hour was all that separated the two sides in a hard-fought encounter at Bramall Lane, and they were helped by Middlesbrough having to play the last 25 minutes a man down following Daniel Ayala’s sending off.
The win stretched the Blades’ unbeaten run to four matches ahead of Reading’s visit on Saturday, with United targeting a fourth straight home win.
Three points didn’t come easy as United’s traditional back-line was disrupted with Chris Wilder forced to alter his tested three-at-the-back system. The suspended Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell, who wasn’t risked due to a minor injury, made way, with Gary Madine also dropping to the bench.
In came Martin Cranie at the back as the Blades switched to an unfamiliar 4-4-2, with George Baldock and Enda Stevens acting as more traditional full-backs. Kieron Dowell was positioned out on the left-wing.
United entered the match on fine form having won their last two matches at the Lane while picking up points away to Norwich and Aston Villa, even if they threw away a 3-0 lead to draw against the latter last time out.
That hadn’t seemed to affect them – Wilder simply wouldn’t let it – and Mark Duffy stung the gloves of Randolph from 25-yards with a sweet strike that the ‘keeper had to tip over early on.
Chances then remained few and far between, and the experienced John Obi Mikel – a cleaver signing on Tony Pulis’ part – impressively patrolled the area in front his defence, starving the Blades of many meaningful attacks.
Boro’s back-line soon fell foul to injury too, though, and the imposing centre-back, Aden Flint, was withdrawn for Stewart Downing.
John Hugill had a chance soon after to put Boro ahead against the run of play, and his long-range effort was stopped by a flying hand from Henderson who did well to get across and tip over.
It brought a spectacularly unspectacular half to a close, and United were very much chugging along as they lacked pace to fit the system.
And if their defence wasn’t patched-up enough, Baldock was forced off just before injury time. Stearman came on and slotted into the left-sided centre-back position with Egan switching to the right. Cranie moved across to right full-back and, while the players probably suited their positions better, the lack of recent game time was a concern. It wasn’t what Wilder needed.
Duffy – United’s bright spark in a dull first half – was withdrawn at half-time, giving Gary Madine a chance to try and cement his place in the Blades team after signing in January.
As United have continued their fight for the play-offs, the margin for error has become finer with each passing week. Henderson’s performances have been critiqued of late – somewhat inevitable in his unforgiving position – and he had to stay strong again as he fumbled Downing’s effort. Thankfully for him, Boro weren’t quick enough to pounce.
Minutes later, up the other end, the Blades had a penalty appeal turned down when Madine looked to have been pulled back while trying to meet Norwood’s cross. The officials were having none of United’s protests.
Madine was hauled to the ground twice more but nothing was given, much to the frustration of Unitedites and those in red and white shirts.
The striker thought he had finally gotten the better of the Boro back-line when his shot was poked in by Billy Sharp, but the United skipper was denied his fourth goal in two games thanks to the linesman’s flag on the near side.
The Blades were soon rewarded for their tenacity, however, as Stearman nodded the hosts in front just after the hour mark. Ollie Norwood’s swinging cross from the right was powered past a stranded Randolph by the centre-back.
Boro’s evening went from bad to worse as Ayala was booked twice inside seven minutes and swiftly shown his marching orders.
The visitors huffed and puffed but United continued to impress and wear down the opposition, even in the latter stages and with tiring legs.
Wilder’s men are hanging around for this promotion hunt for some time yet.
Sheffield United:Henderson; Baldock (Stearman, 44’), Cranie, Egan, Stevens; Duffy, Norwood, Fleck, Duffy (Madine, 46’); Sharp (C) (Coutts, 87’), McGoldrick. Subs not used: Lundstram, Hogan, Bryan, Moore.
Middlesbrough:Randolph, Shotton, Ayala, Flint, Fry, Friend (C), Mikel, Howson (van La Parra, 81’), Wing, Saville (Assombalonga, 66’), Hugill. Subs not used: Konstantopoulos, Clayton, Besic, Fletcher.
Referee: Mr Andy Woolmer
Bookings: Sheffield United: Norwood (cynical foul, 38’), Fleck (dissent, 76’)
Middlesbrough: Shotton (cynical foul, 35’), Ayala (foul, 57’, 64’)
Sent off: Sheffield United: None
Middlesbrough: Ayala (Second yellow card, 64’)
Scorers: Sheffield United: Stearman (61’)
Man of the Match: Richard Stearman (Sheffield United)