Two goals from Lee Evans – his first in Sheffield United colours – kept the Blades’ play-off dreams alive with a 2-1 win against fellow promotion chasers Middlesbrough.
A second minute volley from outside the box gave Chris Wilder’s men the perfect start against a Boro side who had to play for over an hour with ten men following skipper Grant Leadbitter’s second yellow.
Evans doubled the advantage with another well-taken volley before half-time as Dani Ayala pulled one back for Tony Pulis’ side to make life uncomfortable for United.
It keeps the Blades’ hopes of a top six finish as a possibility with Millwall – another side in contention for the play-offs – visiting Bramall Lane on Saturday.
Millwall leapfrogged Boro as they drop out of the top six, with Wilder’s men sitting three points outside the play-offs in ninth.
Wilder said: “We were outstanding first-half. Credit to the opposition really. They’ve got great players.
“We’ve got to be a little bit more composed. We became tight.
“There is everything to play for. We are alive and kicking.”
Tonight was always going to be dubbed as a crunch match, a proverbial six-pointer. Win and United’s push for the top six was still on, lose and the hunt for promotion, with all the play-off sides near enough playing each other in the final few weeks of the season, would fall on deaf ears.
Up step Lee Evans, then, to side-foot a volley from outside of the box inside two minutes, with Darren Randolph watching the effort sail in after a looped clearance from his defence.
Not a bad way to open your account for Sheffield United and against fellow promotion candidates, too, after Tony Pulis has appeared to turn things around at Boro, a side chasing an immediate bounce-back to the Premier League.
Former Chelsea striker, Patrick Bamford, signed by Boro for £6m in the summer after a previously successful loan spell, had the visitors’ first shot on target, but his tame effort was held comfortably by Simon Moore despite the sea of bodies in front of him.
While Randolph could do little about Evans’ opener, he was alert to deny Leon Clarke after the Blades skipper was sent through one-on-one by Enda Stevens. The front-man had plenty of time to pick his spot but was perhaps guilty of over-thinking as he struck straight down the throat of the former West Ham ‘keeper.
A Tony Pulis side wouldn’t be one without a bit of direct football and Ryan Shotton – who used to play under the Welshman during his time at Stoke City – caused some danger with numerous long throws.
With Boro looking to get back into the contest as they sat just one point inside the play-offs going into the match, they were dealt a blow as their skipper, Grant Leadbitter, was shown a second yellow. Booked just five minutes before for hauling down David Brooks as the United winger set-up a counter-attack, the Boro captain’s late challenge on John Fleck in the centre-circle was enough for Darren Bond to send the experienced midfielder for an early bath.
Tasked with taking over the captaincy, Ben Gibson had to reorganise his troops if they were to return home with something to show.
They responded by switching from 4-3-3 to a three at the back with Bamford and Adama Traore forming the partnership up front.
It didn’t do much, however, as five minutes before half-time Evans doubled the advantage. A short corner was taken by Fleck to Brooks, and Evans readjusted his feet to acrobatically fire a volley into the bottom corner.
A dream half for the red and whites.
To show just how impressive the Blades were, Pulis used all three of his available substitutes at half-time, and it made an instant impact.
A free-kick from a largely quiet Stewart Downing was headed on to Dani Ayala by Gibson, with the former slotting the ball past Moore three minutes after the re-start after creeping unmarked to the back post.
With top-scorer, Britt Assombalonga, now on the pitch, the Blades were going to have to instill some defensive discipline to protect their lead.
An effort from distance by Jonny Howson signaled Boro’s intent as his side began to show the quality at their disposal.
Moore remained relatively untouched, though, with the Bramall Lane faithful getting somewhat tetchy after a couple of clear-cut decisions went against United.
Howson went further still as his curling effort whistled past the far post as Boro searched for a leveler in the final ten minutes.
The equaliser failed to materialise as United rose to the challenge of what was always going to be a huge night in Sheffield, leaving Tony Pulis a frustrated figure at full-time.
He said: “I just thought first half we didn’t play with the tempo or the energy. I thought second-half we were fantastic. We have had chances and opportunities.
“It was completely chalk and cheese [from the first-half].
“This is not pressure. This is what we all want. Players are footballers, they want to be playing in these types of games.”
Sheffield United (3-5-2): Moore; Basham, Wright (Duffy, 72’), O’Connell; Baldock, Lundstram (Leonard, 89’), Evans, Fleck, Stevens; Brooks (Donaldson, 85’), Clarke (C). Subs not used: Sharp, Lafferty, Holmes, Eastwood.
Middlesbrough (4-3-3): Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend; Howson, Leadbitter (C), Besic (Fabio, 46’); Traore (Clayton, 46’) Bamford (Assombalonga, 46’) Downing. Subs not used: Cranie, Fry, Harrison, Konstantopoulos.
Referee: Darren Bond
Bookings: Sheffield United: John Fleck (35’, foul)
Middlesbrough: Grant Leadbitter (20’, cynical foul, 25’, foul), Adama Traore (42’), George Friend (87’, cynical foul)
Sent off: Sheffield United: None
Middlesbrough: Grant Leadbitter (25’, second bookable offence)
Scorers: Sheffield United: Lee Evans (2’, 40’)
Middlesbrough: Daniel Ayala (48’)
HT score: 2-0
FT score: 2-1
Man of the Match: Lee Evans (Sheffield United)