McClaren lauds United’s for­ward line

The Football League Paper - - CHAMPIONSHIP - By Chris Dunlavy

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

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