SHEFFIELD UNITED must answer some searching questions against Middlesbrough in midweek. Manager Chris Wilder tried to make light, in public at least, of a calamitous collapse at Villa Park. Dean Smith did likewise from Aston Villa’s point of view.
In truth, however, as entertaining the 3-3 draw was to dispassionate Sky Sports viewers sat at home in their armchairs, what happened was a coaches’ nightmare.
For the Blades doubts began to resurface after what had looked very much like a major turning point in the bid to be serious contenders for automatic promotion with eight minutes of normal time remaining.
Until then and before Villa, trailing 0-3, began their dramatic recovery United had produced their best performance under Wilder since he took charge in May 2016. Which is what the stunned manager decided to focus on.
Explaining away the defensive shambles that followed and an inability to retain possession and see out a match in which Villa had been chasing shadows, takes some doing. It doesn’t bode well that they failed to cope when Villa, roared on by most of a 34,892 crowd, finally got their act together.
A win would have lifted United, temporarily, to the Championship summit and coasting towards the finish line they contrived to almost throw it all away.
Villa manager Smith was right to say that his team were by far the best in the last 15 minutes. What he failed to acknowledge was that previously there had only been one side in it. Or that Villa are in tenth place, six points shy of the play-offs having conceded 49 goals, more than relegation threatened Bolton Wanderers or Reading.
A malaise demonstrated by the steady exodus at Villa Park which began shortly after Billy Sharp had completed his hat-trick in the 62nd minute. The 33-year-old striker’s 101st goal in a United shirt, shooting him to the top of the Championship’s hit parade with 22.
Wilder, whilst having much more to be satisfied about than Smith, was nevertheless equally rose-tinted. “I thought the boys were exceptional, absolutely exceptional, for all but five minutes at the end. To come to Aston Villa, to do what we did for 80 or so (minutes) against the players they've got, and you have to be a good player to be at Villa by the way, I think they can take something away with them.”
In the final analysis taking “something away with them” was a huge let-down. This draw felt like a defeat, something which skipper Sharp eluded to when questioned by the media. A point may have been a satisfactory outcome before kick-off, but as on the strength of United’s performance for the majority of the match, it wasn’t.
Hat-trick hero Sharp offered a more pragmatic view. ”We were 3-0 up with 10 minutes to go. We've got to do better, we've got to see the game out. We're trying to win the promotion and these are the games when you get in front, you've got to win the game,” he said. “If we'd have got three points it would've been a great night. It [the result] took the shine off my hat-trick, I'd have rather have not scored and got the three points to go top."
Middlesbrough, Wednesday night’s opponents at Bramall Lane, have their own concerns. Having begun the season as promotion favourites they are very much in the chasing pack. Before this weeks round of fixtures they lie three points and two places behind the Blades who remain in third.
With 15 matches left and pressure mounting on both sides’ ambitions, neither can afford many more slip ups. United in their hope of staying in touch with pace-setters Norwich City and Leeds United, Boro to maintain play-off status. Then comes a must-win match against struggling Reading at the Lane on Saturday.
Sharp summed the situation up perfectly “We have to learn from this and respond by winning the next two home games. If we do that we look back and see it as a good week with a useful point against Villa. We have to brush ourselves down and go again.”