Sheffield United boosted their automatic promotion hopes in the Championship as they beat fellow promotion hopefuls Middlesbrough 1-0 at Bramall Lane on Wednesday evening.
It was a rather uneventful first half, with both sides struggling to create any clear chances. The Blades were able to make the breakthrough on the hour-mark as Richard Stearman headed Ollie Norwood's free-kick into the back of the net.
This was ultimately enough to secure the Blades all three points and move them to within two points of Norwich City who currently occupy the second automatic promotion place.
A cagey first half at Bramall Lane
Blades manager Chris Wilder opted to name a very attacking line-up for this game, with his side looking to boost their automatic promotion chances. This saw the likes of Billy Sharp, David McGoldrick and Kieran Dowell all included in the starting line-up. As for Boro, Tony Pulis caused a stir on social media by deciding to leave Britt Assombalonga on the bench once again. Jordan Hugill was given the nod in the lone striker role.
After being involved in a six-goal thriller against Aston Villa at the weekend, it perhaps wasn't a surprise that the hosts struggled to get going in the opening period. A number of simple passes were going astray and they found it difficult to create any clear chances against a resilient Boro defence.
However, the first big chance of the game did fall to Wilder's side. Mark Duffy decided to take aim from just outside the area, and Darren Randolph had to be alert to turn his effort round the post. The home crowd thought that George Baldock had turned home the rebound, but his effort was deflected behind for a corner.
However, the away side slowly got themselves into the game and the likes of Jonny Howson and George Saville were seeing plenty of the ball in the middle of the park. It was Saville who first tried his luck for Boro but his speculative effort trickled wide of the target.
Blades goalkeeper Dean Henderson wasn't really called into action until five minutes before half-time. Hugill's curling effort looked destined to nestle in the top right-hand corner but Henderson did well to tip it over.
Stearman secures vital win for Blades
It's fair to say that it was a frantic start to the second period at Bramall Lane. After Henderson failed to come out a deal with a ball into the area, George Friend saw his effort headed off the line by John Egan. The Blades keeper almost made a mess of Stewart Downing's tame effort just second later, but just about did enough to recover.
However, despite making a bright start to the half, Boro fell behind on the hour-mark. The Blades ended a spell of relentless pressure by opening the scoring. Norwood's free-kick into the area was sublime, and Stearman was able to head home into the back of the net to give the hosts the lead.
Boro's task was made a whole lot harder just three minutes later. Daniel Ayala was sent off after a picking up a second yellow card for a reckless challenge on Dowell. Pulis instantly responded by introducing Assombalonga off the bench.
The 26-year-old striker, who has scored nine goals so far this season, came close to drawing Boro level with around 20 minutes left to play. However, he could only fire straight at Henderson when he was played through on goal.
This was as close as Pulis' side came to getting back on level terms. It was a disappointing second half performance from Boro but Ayala's dismissal certainly didn't help their cause.
Takeaways from the match
John Obi Mikel rolls back the years
Many eyebrows were raised when Boro decided to sign the 31-year-old midfielder on a free transfer last month. However, Pulis clearly felt he had nothing to lose by offering the Nigerian a short-term deal.
The ex-Chelsea man proved that Pulis was right to sign him up with his performance in this match. He offered protection to the away side's back four for the entirety of the match, tidying things up in the middle of the park. He could be a vital figure for Boro between now and the end of the season.
Should Assombalonga be starting?
It's easy to see why many Boro supporters are eager to see Assombalonga be given a place in the starting line-up more regularly. He is a proven striker at this level and has the ability to cause any defence problems with his pace and finishing.
However, Pulis clearly feels that Hugill offers his side more in this sort of game. Although Hugill's hold-up play is normally effective, he struggled to get into this game and offered very little threat. Assombalonga may be Boro's best option moving forward as he did make a slight impact when he came on.
Blades get the job done
There's no doubt that this wasn't a vintage performance from the Blades. However, they were able to get the job done to secure a vital three points. This is a game that they might have drawn or even lost last season.
If they can continue to pick up wins when not at their best between now and the end of the season, they are in with a chance of securing automatic promotion to the Premier League which would be a huge achievement for all involved.