Blades back in action
Sheffield United return from their COVID-enforced break for a first taste of Championship action since an eye-catching 1-0 success at table-topping Fulham before Christmas. Iliman Ndiaye‘s excellent solo goal proved decisive at Craven Cottage as the Blades continued their upturn in form and fortune under head coach Paul Heckingbottom.
Ndiaye broke from his own half before sliding an inch-perfect shot into the bottom corner from 20 yards in the first meaningful attack of the game. United came under pressure thereafter – the hosts hitting the woodwork, whilst also dominating possession and territory – but struggled to really threaten the Blades goal for most of the match.
The win was Sheff Utd’s fourth successive triumph, and third straight under Heckingbottom, with the top-six now coming into the view. And the Blades boss was delighted with the performance post-match, saying: “It’s a brilliant result. To win this way was a real big thing for us because we haven’t looked like doing that. The lads showed real spirit.”
Boro pinch late success
Duncan Watmore‘s stoppage-time winner gave Middlesbrough victory at Blackpool in a dramatic finish at Bloomfield Road in midweek. Watmore turned in a cross from the impressive Isaiah Jones to pinch a 2-1 success for the Teessiders just moments after Dael Fry’s error had gifted the Seasiders a dramatic 91st-minute equaliser.
Andraz Sporar had earlier put Boro ahead in the second half as he met a low pass from Jones with a clever backheel flick. But few anticipated the grandstand finale, although the final outcome was harsh on a depleted Blackpool, who twice struck the post after the break, despite missing a catalogue of first-teamers through injury, illness and positive COVID tests.
Post-match, Boro chief Chris Wilder acknowledged it was a tough test, saying: “I always knew this would be a really tough game. Blackpool were really aggressive, and asked questions of us. There are different hurdles to get over. We’d liked to have got over it in a better way, but the team showed a lot of different characteristics and qualities to get a big win.”
Sheffield United boast a strong Bramall Lane record against Middlesbrough, picking up seven wins from their past nine league meetings here against the Teessiders (W7-D1-L1) going back to 1987, although this is the first such showdown here since 2018/19. Even so, Boro were 2-0 victors in the reverse encounter back in September.
Sheffield United 2.186/5 have arguably been the Championship’s biggest underachievers. However, the Blades are beginning to find form. Expected Points (xP) ratings suggest the hosts have been the fifth best team in the division with United also returning the sixth-best Expected Goals (xG) ratio return. The home side have W9-D3-L5 since September.
Middlesbrough 3.6013/5 have made immediate improvements under Chris Wilder’s tutorship. The hosts have W5-D2-L1 under the new boss’ watch, with Boro ranking inside the top-four for the majority of performance data metrics during those eight fixtures. The guests also come into this contest with a respectable W5-D5-L2 record against fellow top-half teams.
Sheffield United have collected four shutouts in their past five fixtures, with the Blades among the division’s elite for Expected Goals (xG) against over the past eight encounters. So while Bramall Lane results have remained inconsistent, the home side have continued to produce relatively solid defensive efforts with half of their 10 tussles going Under 2.5 Goals [1.75].
Middlesbrough have tightened up since Chris Wilder arrived, picking up four clean sheets in their last five. Boro have scored themselves in 12 of their past 14 Championship outings, although still lack a clinical edge in the final-third, notching multiple goals in only 10 fixtures this season. Away from The Riverside, 75% of encounters have produced Under 2.5 Goals.
With both teams trending in the right direction, and making clear and obvious improvements at the back, I’m happy to take Under 2.5 Goals for the early New Year’s Day kick-off.
The league average sits at 2.45 goals per-game with 54% of fixtures featuring fewer than three goals, with 14/22 (64%) combined home/away games paying-out.