Sheffield United missed out on a chance to go top of the table as Joe Allen’s late leveller gave Stoke a share of the spoils at Bramall Lane in a 1-1 draw.
Leon Clarke scored his first goal of the season after Oli Norwood’s free-kick had smashed against an upright, and the points looked to be headed to United.
Allen had other ideas, however, as he fired in a free-kick from range that snuck in at the near-post.
It was an impressive reaction from the Derby County disappointment on Saturday, a defeat that ended the Blades’ four match winning streak, but they were ultimately punished for their lack of profligacy in front of goal.
It leaves them second in the table to Middlesbrough, who could only battle out a 0-0 stalemate with Rotherham United at home.
Chris Wilder made his first change in six matches and it was a surprising choice. Skipper and top-scorer Billy Sharp made way for Leon Clarke, but it was a show of faith by his boss, perhaps, who knew he was capable of turning it around. And he did just that.
The partnership of Clarke and David McGoldrick, who has impressed greatly since his free transfer to the Blades this summer, hasn’t really had the opportunity to develop so far.
They looked to feed off each other in the early stages of this encounter, helped by John Fleck’s eagerness to get the ball forward and driving the midfield on.
McGoldrick was forced to drop deep a couple of times as he looked to get Enda Stevens and Kieron Freeman involved in the build-up play.
Incidentally, it was Stevens who had the best opportunity inside the opening quarter of an hour. A drop of the shoulders by Mark Duffy gave him space to cut-back to the unmarked full-back but he could only side-foot over when all he had to do was hit the target. One of those missed chances that you feel could come back to haunt the Blades.
Gary Rowett’s touchline ban, picked up for alleged comments made to the referee in their 1-0 defeat to Birmingham at the weekend, certainly didn’t help his team here as they struggled to cope with United’s fluid style of play.
And Stoke’s Ashley Williams was almost left red-faced when he was caught the wrong side of Clarke, beaten for pace by a looping ball over the top. Even a tug of the frontman’s shirt wasn’t enough to put off the Blades’ skipper, but as the referee waved advantage and Clarke shot on the turn, Butland dived low to keep the effort out.
Berahino then incensed Wilder, and indeed the Bramall Lane crowd, after appearing to dive inside the box – and wasn’t punished – as Dean Henderson pulled out of a challenge, but McGoldrick went close up the other end only to be denied at the near-post by some fantastic reflexes by Jack Butland.
Clarke then went closer but couldn’t stretch far enough to direct Jack O’Connell’s teasing cross towards goal as the sides went into the break level.
Duffy tried to get a grasp of the midfield and came close to forcing the ball home when he attempted to turn in Chris Basham’s cut-back from the by-line. Williams did just enough to stick a leg out and block, and Butland breathed a sigh of relief as O’Connell’s header fell into his clutches.
Just as the Blades though they’d had Stoke tamed, on came Peter Crouch for Berahino. A different kind of threat entirely.
It didn’t have the desired effect.
When Bruno Martins Indi pulled back Clarke a couple of yards outside the D, Norwood only had one thing on his mind.
While it wasn’t executed quite the way he would’ve liked – it cracked the woodwork with Butland flailing – it did give Clarke the chance to prod home from a couple of yards with twenty-minutes to go.
With the start to the season Clarke has had, he will not care how the goal came about. He was in the right place at the right time to take advantage, showing a glimpse of the player who netted 19 times last season.
Not only was it important for Clarke to get off the mark but it also sent the Blades temporarily back to the top of the league.
An emphasis on temporary, however, as two minutes from time Allen had levelled for the Potters. A drilled free-kick that should never have wormed its way in did just that, beating the outstretched Henderson at his near post despite his best efforts to tip away.
It was a hammer blow for the Blades, a sucker punch after such a well-battled second-half, but a stark reminder that you have to punish teams if you’re to stay in the top echelons of this division.
It’ll be seen as two points dropped, undoubtedly, but the Blades have a chance to put it right on Saturday when Wigan visit Bramall Lane.
They need to put teams to bed. But Chris Wilder knows that.
Sheffield United: Henderson; Basham, Egan, O’Connell; Freeman (Coutts, 90+1’), Fleck, Norwood, Stevens; Duffy (Stearman, 86’); McGoldrick (Washington, 86’), Clarke (C). Subs not used: Sharp, Johnson, Cranie, Moore (GK).
Stoke City: Butland; Martina (Edwards, 81’), Williams, Martins Indi, Pieters (Shawcross, 81’); Woods (C); Ince, Allen, McClean; Berahino (Crouch, 66’), Afobe. Subs not used: Adam, Fletcher, Bojan, Federici (GK).
Referee: Gavin Ward
Bookings: Sheffield United: Enda Stevens (90+4′)
Stoke City: Martins Indi (69’)
Scorers: Sheffield United: Clarke (70’)
Stoke City: Allen (88’)
HT score: 0-0
FT score: 1-1
Attendance: 24, 463
Man of the Match: John Fleck (Sheffield United)