Helter-skelter time in the automatic promotion race for Sheffield United - big-match verdict

Great goal: Billy Sharp celebrates with scorer Scott Hogan.
Great goal: Billy Sharp celebrates with scorer Scott Hogan.
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ADDRESSING the press after his side’s victory at West Bromwich just over five weeks ago, Chris Wilder shrewdly stated with conviction: ‘We will win games and lose games’ during the run-in.

It was episodes like Saturday that he will have had in the back of his mind when making that most perceptive of comments.

The only thing consistent about the Championship is its glorious unpredictability as Wilder well knows and the weekend proved to be the most obvious case in point following helter-skelter events at Bramall Lane and Elland Road.

It leaves Sheffield United on the chase again, with the sun which they felt on their backs following their recent triumph at Leeds and during their training camp in Valencia suddenly not feeling so warm.

A side rich in mentality, character and aptitude, Wilder’s Blades will surely come again. Yet while the food for thought they were offered by Bristol City may not have been a banquet, it was a fair-sized meal all the same.

Seemingly refreshed by their recent warm-weather training stint on the continent, the hosts were leggy, uncharacteristically sloppy in possession and hesitant in their defensive duties.

By contrast, Bristol City were sharp, bold and inventive.

Wilder admitted after the game that he felt that this appointment – straight after the international break – would perhaps be his side’s toughest remaining game of the season.

It was reinforced by the fact that several of his players were heading into the match following international commitments, with the likes of David McGoldrick, Enda Stevens and Dean Henderson kept busy.

Not for the first time, Wilder’s assertions were on the money with several of his main protagonists being off-colour.

The upshot was an away success and United’s first home reverse since mid-December, with the Robins’ third successive triumph at Bramall Lane possessing drama, akin to their stoppage-time win in S2 last season.

But where City’s victory in December, 2017 was unfortunate and cruel upon the hosts, Saturday’s was thoroughly deserved – and should the Blades end up in the end-of-season lottery, their West Country rivals would be a team they would rather avoid.

A year to the day from inflicting another painful result upon South Yorkshire hosts after registering a late point to prevent Barnsley from securing a precious survival victory, Lee Johnson’s side delivered another sting.

It came when the immaculate Andreas Weimann, a player who has sparkled sporadically during a career littered with promise but blighted by inconsistency, buried a shot high past Dean Henderson to secure his hat-trick seven minutes from time.

Home shoulders sagged and a collective shiver replaced the spring sunshine at Bramall Lane.

When questioned on whether his side’s trip to Spain was a good idea, Wilder opined that it most certainly would not be if his side were “3-0 down after 15 minutes.”

The early evidence suggested that the break had possessed restorative qualities, given a purposeful United start crowned by an early opener.

The nous of Billy Sharp was showcased for the umpteenth time in a goal-laden career after giving the Bristol City defence the slip to head home John Fleck’s excellent free-kick from the left.

Without a win in their previous six matches, the Robins looked disorientated – but their response was a stirring one.

Taking a hold of the game in midfield where their trio of Josh Brownhill, Korey Smith and Marlon Pack outshone Ollie Norwood, Fleck and company, City also had discernible threats up top through Weimann and Famara Diedhiou.

Henderson had to be alert to turn away a goalbound long-ranger from Brownhill but was exposed on the half-hour in a moment he would rather forget.

Wearing a cap to try and keep out the sun, the Blades goalkeeper clearly saw Weimann’s looping header late, with his efforts to keep it out being unconvincing as United conceded a home league goal for the first time in 2019.

With their passing game not in sync, the half-time whistle looked timely for United.

But City were the ones most likely on the restart and the Blades had a major let-off when a free-kick from the impressive Brownhill struck the post.

United needed something and, thankfully, it arrived when interval substitute Scott Hogan stayed sharp to nod in George Baldock’s centre at the far post – a first goal for the club.

It looked like being a big moment, but City were not finished.

With the hosts still readjusting to the loss of Jack O’Connell, forced off with a calf complaint, the visitors reaped a harvest.

A probing pass from substitute Kasey Palmer caught out a static rearguard and Weimann adeptly struck out a leg to divert the ball home and worse was to come.

A deadly interchange between Weimann and Diedhiou ended in the former delivering an emphatic finish as Unitedites preferred not to look.