McGOLDRICK NUGGET IS PRICELESS!
McClaren lauds United’s forward line
SHEFFIELD United returned to the top two for the first time since November after a gritty win over lacklustre QPR.
It was at this stage last year that the Blades’ promotion charge faltered, with injury and fatigue eventually conspiring to rob Chris Wilder’s men of a play-off berth.
A dodgy start to December had Blades supporters fearing a repeat, but this was a result – and performance – that ground any lingering worries to dust.
David McGoldrick’s first-half header sealed the points against a Hoops side seemingly devoid of invention, but it was the energy and desire to see the game out that suggested United are contenders this term.
“They’re top six and I expect them to stay there,” said an admiring Steve McClaren, who saw his QPR side’s eight-game unbeaten run come to an end.
“And you never know in this Championship – the top two is a possibility. They’re big, strong, hard to beat. And they’ve always got an opportunity because they’ve got goalscorers. That was the difference today.”
Not, however, the only one. Rangers were certainly short in that department, with Nahki Wells ineffective and neither winger providing the kind of service required by late sub Matt Smith. Only Ebere Eze, the 20-year-old forward, offered any kind of penetration.
The visitors were also immaculately organised. Few sides
have restricted this free-flowing Blades side to a solitary shot on target, especially at Bramall Lane, yet the Hoops did so with relative ease.
Even the clinching goal required a ball of exquisite precision from the excellent Ollie Norwood, a deep, swirling cross from the right that bisected the Hoops’ central defenders, before being deftly glanced into the top corner by McGoldrick.
It was the striker’s 10th goal of the season, and atoned for an earlier miss when he sidefooted Billy Sharp’s cutback wide.
“We know they’re very attacking,” added McClaren. “They score goals at home. Our game plan in terms of restricting that was excellent and we played football when we could. But our final ball was not of quality.”
Yet for all their solidity and unquestionable workrate, QPR also fell just short of matching United for energy and desire. Time and again in an attritional second half, the Blades made vital interceptions, recovery tackles or cynically wiped out counterattacks at source, swallowing yellow cards in the process.
Norwood and midfield partner John Fleck were immense, as were a back three who rarely looked anything but rock solid.
By the end, a frustrated QPR side were reduced to leathering hopeful efforts from distance, the best a left-footed drive by Luke Freeman that skimmed a post.
“It’s job done,” said a satisfied Wilder. “Nothing is given to you in the Championship and we’ve had to overcome stubborn opposition today.
“It’s not always going to be free-flowing. You aren’t always going to create chance after chance. Some days you have to grind one out and I thought that’s exactly what we did.” Wilder resisted the temptation to throw striker Gary Madine – a loan signing from Cardiff City and former Sheffield Wednesday player – into the fray.
How McClaren must wish he had that luxury. The Hoops boss has lost Tomer Hemed and Geoff Cameron to injury, plus Massimo Luongo to Asia Cup duty with Australia, but is banned from signing any players this month as part of an EFL sanction for overspending in the 2013-14 campaign.
“We’re in a far better place than we were three or four months ago,” said the former England manager. “We can compete in games, and we weren’t doing that at the start of the season.
“I’m delighted with the squad. With the players we’ve got. I’m delighted at the progress they’ve made. They keep surprising me in terms of their resilience and I’m convinced they’ll improve.”
DUEL: Queens Park Rangers’ Darnell Furlong battles with Sheffield United’s Enda Stevens
PURE GOLD: Sheffield United’s David McGoldrick is congratulated on scoring what turned out to be the winner
BATTLE: QPR’s Luke Freeman and United’s Chris Basham