NEIL Warnock’s return to Bramall Lane yielded a hard-earned point for QPR with Sheffield United booed off by their own supporters.
In a relatively even clash it was the hosts that opened the scoring on the stroke of half time – Richard Cresswell with the exquisitely guided header with seconds remaining on the clock.
The second half belonged to Rangers and in particular the lively Adel Taarabt, the Moroccan rounded off a fine passing move to stroke the ball past stopper Mark Bunn.
The Moroccan was once again in fine form and Rangers were unfortunate not to have taken the advantage at some point, with Marcel Seip in particular struggling to cope under the strain.
As it was the Blades piled on the pressure late on, but it wasn’t enough to claim a win as United slip further off the playoff pace.
They were hounded off the pitch by a disappointed home crowd, but Warnock’s men continue to go from strength to strength in their bid to avoid the drop.
Neil Warnock kept faith with the same team for the third game in succession, which meant no place in the side for either Lee Cook or Ákos Buzsáky.
Carl Ikeme started behind a back four of Matt Connolly, Damion Stewart, Kaspars Gorkss and Matt Hill with skipper Mikele Leigertwood partnering Alejandro Faurlín in the middle.
Adel Taarabt and Hogan Ephraim started wide with Tamás Priskin starting alongside top-scorer Jay Simpson, as Warnock’s men looked to put his former club to the sword.
The Blades began with Mark Bunn behind a back four of Nyron Nosworthy, Marcel Seip, skipper Chris Morgan and Jordan Stewart – Nick Montgomery and James Harper in the middle.
United started Stephen Quinn and Mark Yeates on the flanks with Richard Cresswell partnered by the returning Henri Camara in the absence of the injured Ched Evans.
Kick Off: Sheffield United v Queens Park Rangers
Neil Warnock was welcomed back to Bramall Lane with a positive reception with one fan outside the ground seemingly capturing the mood among supporters – ‘Want a job Neil?’ he exclaimed. It would soon become apparent just how problematic the situation in Sheffield had become.
The R’s started brightly but tempered their play with the defensive caution that they have lacked in honesty for the entire season. Damion Stewart and Kaspars Gorkss were ensuring that clearances were long and full-blooded, cutting out the previous requirement for Brazilian football.
Rangers were applying some useful early pressure, not only in possession but also without the ball – forcing an early corner at the Kop End. Alejandro Faurlín’s set piece was headed by Adel Taarabt but the Moroccan failed to draw a save from Mark Bunn.
The same two players linked up again moments later when the Argentine fed Taarabt down the left and the Spurs loanee fizzed a testing ball across the six-yard box, and it agonisingly rolled wide of the right hand upright.
More commanding play in the middle of the park between Leigertwood and Faurlín saw Taarabt once again chase a ball through on goal, but Bunn was alert to race off his line and claim at the Moroccan’s feet – A lively opening from the R’s with Warnock evidently keen to push the tempo.
The Blades were struggling to assert their impetus on the clash despite a glut of proven Championship talent. It was evidently becoming frustrating to the home support who began to make their voices heard towards the team and manager Kevin Blackwell.
A brief glimpse of the Blades’ capabilities was displayed when James Harper burst down the left to square for the unmarked Henri Camara – however the Senegalese international could only blaze over from the edge of the area.
The visitors continued to frustrate and excite in equal measure as a measured Faurlín free-kick saw Gorkss nod wide to Ephraim. The former West Ham United man jinked past his marker to fire an effort back off the foot of the right-hand upright. Desperately unlucky on Warnock’s side who had showed well early in the early offing.
Down the other end it was United’s Jordan Stewart that drew a stop from Carl Ikeme. Stewart had been heckled by a section of support early on for his direct approach to the game, but was sarcastically cheered for his daisy-cutter which Ikeme fielded with consummate ease.
The home pressure continued with a Harper free-kick cleared only as far Montgomery – the old Warnock favourite, who is out of contract at the end of the season, sent a dipping volley over Ikeme’s right-hand post to the frustration of the Bramall Lane crowd.
Then came what could be described as the turning point of the game as Rangers and in particular Hogan Ephraim missed a guilt-edge opportunity to take the lead. Taarabt was once again the heart-beat of the Rangers moved as he drove forward from midfield.
The attack-minded Moroccan laid in a pin-point through ball for Ephraim with the lively winger one-on-one with ‘keeper Bunn. The Blades custodian didn’t commit and the wide-man placed straight into his grateful arms from close range – frustration for Rangers and Warnock, and it proved to be decisive.
The Blades went straight down the other end to punish Rangers for their naïve finishing with Mark Yeates fending off Matt Connolly before sending a testing cross to the edge of the area. Richard Cresswell was on hand to lean into the header and guide it expertly beyond Ikeme into the top left-hand corner.
GOAL: Sheffield United 1-0 Queens Park Rangers
Cruel on Rangers who had battled well throughout the first half, but a lesson in incisive finish was all they could take from this cruel blow in the latter stages of the half.
There was still time for Taarabt to send Simpson through down the right and sting the palms of the under-worked Bunn, but the sides nevertheless went into the break with the Blades in front.
Half Time: Sheffield United 1-0 Queens Park Rangers
The Blades looked to extend their advantage as they took to the field in the second half, with Harper in particular unlucky not to have a forward on the end of his cross. It skipped up in the area from the left for Ikeme to pluck the ball uncontested towards his midriff.
While United looked more lively it was Rangers once again that looked the more sprightly and fresh of the two sides, with Warnock’s half time team talk evidently having the desired effect. Taarabt in particular exhumed confidence as he strode forward with Jay Simpson’s strength against Seip and Morgan another huge positive for the visitors.
The breakthrough was surely only a matter of time away, and it duly came after a moment of magic from Adel Taarabt. Any scouts keeping an eye on the young Moroccan would have certainly have had their attentions raised as he latched onto tentative defending by Seip to race through on goal.
The Spurs loanee shrugged off Seip with consummate ease before giving Bunn the eyes and rolling beyond the ‘keeper into the bottom left hand corner. It sent the loyal travelling fans into raptures and the discontent escalated around Bramall Lane.
GOAL: Sheffield United 1-1 Queens Park Rangers
Rangers were now rampant going forward with Leigertwood and Faurlín a commanding presence, while the flair of Simpson, Taarabt and Ephraim proving a genuine threat in the final third, particularly with the Blades rearguard crumbling before the supporters’ eyes.
Taarabt’s trickery saw Chris Morgan go into the book for an over-zealous challenge, and gave the excitable midfielder an opportunity with a free-kick on the edge of the area. Taarabt thumped an effort towards goal that was expertly tipped over by Bunn, who was now being tested far more.
Former Blade Mikele Leigertwood was impressing in the R’s engine room and his snap shot from 25-yards displayed his confidence. Unfortunately for him and Rangers it drifted wide of the left-hand upright, and came close to hitting this writer!
Harper was withdrawn to ironic cheers from supporters, when in truth he had put in a decent shift for his side – he was replaced by Darius Henderson, a man-mountain forward with a penchant for using his elbows effectively.
Somehow he won a succession of free-kicks as he piled into Gorkss and Stewart in their standing jumps. He was dishing out some serious treatment, and it was all too much for the young linesmen who found favour with the sizeable forward.
The Sheffield United fans were now proving an asset rather than a draw-back as they sensed their manager’s long-awaited ambitious touch, by having three strikers on the park. The crowd grew in noise and were now providing an intimidating atmosphere that Warnock would know only too well.
While the Blades were now cranking up the pressure it was the composed ‘keeper Carl Ikeme that was proving imperious between the sticks, claiming a string of deep crosses with incredible ease, and taking the pressure off his battered and bruised rearguard.
There was pressure – but crucially there was no clear cut chances, as Rangers raced forward for a winner. Taarabt had previously lashed an effort over the bar from the edge of the area, before being fed by Faurlín and testing Bunn once again low to his left.
Rangers were committing men forward with cautious optimism, with set-pieces in particular the excuse the likes of Stewart and Gorkss needed to pile forward and support the attack. Gorkss found himself on the right wing at one point to supplement the attack, as the R’s looked for a winner.
End to end stuff in the final stages made for exciting viewing, with neither side truly contented by a point, but to that end it was a game neither wanted to lose after decent invidual displays. Taarabt and Ephraim were withdrawn with Ákos Buzsáky and Lee Cook taking to the pitch.
It was however to no avail as Rangers and Sheffield United cancelled each other out in a well-fought point at Bramall Lane. Blades fans fiercely booed their side off in the loudest noise that had graced the ground all day – while Warnock continued his unbeaten record at Rangers.
Final Whistle: Sheffield United 1-1 Queens Park Rangers
Mark Bunn, Nyron Nosworthy, Marcel Seip, Chris Morgan, Jordan Stewart, Mark Yeates (Glenn Little 84), James Harper (Darius Henderson 68), Nick Montgomery, Stephen Quinn, Richard Cresswell, Henri Camara.
Queens Park Rangers
Carl Ikeme, Matt Connolly, Damion Stewart, Kaspars Gorkss, Matt Hill, Adel Taarabt (Ákos Buzsáky 87), Alejandro Damián Faurlín, Mikele Leigertwood, Hogan Ephraim (Lee Cook 90), Tamás Priskin, Jay Simpson.
Carl Ikeme – 8/10
Simply outstanding was the goalkeeper as he came from his line to claim cross after cross, relieving the pressure on the Rangers defence and snuffing out the opportunities that United had to throw at him.
The ‘keeper looks in fine form under new management as he continues to grow in confidence behind an unchanged back four – and it never wavered despite a minor misunderstanding with Matt Hill in the first half.
Here is a keeper that Rangers may look to permanently if he continues his present run of form, but there is work to do if he is to achieve these calibre of results consistently.
Matt Connolly – 7/10
By and large Connolly did well against both Quinn and Yeates today tackling well and showing good strength to snuff out any attacks down the flank.
The full-back has discovered some form in his new position under Warnock, and the manager in return has chosen to keep faith with him in the defensive berth despite injury niggles.
Connolly was aerially quite dominant and proved tough to beat, which are the foremost attributes required in a full-back. Whenever a cross did come from the right, the unit was able to snuff it out.
Kaspars Gorkss – 7/10
The Latvian showed great defensive ability and composure to deny the Blades on several occasions, even dealing well with the man-mountain Henderson at the end.
He looked to rekindled his partnership with Stewart and defended well throughout the ninety – with the majority of clearances lofted well away from the area.
His ability has never been in question but it was clear that in recent weeks his confidence had taken an evident knock, Warnock appears to have picked him up and got him on the right track once more.
Damion Stewart – 7/10
Damion was once again in decent form, doing the majority of his work with great confidence and expertise, again doing well against Henderson in the latter stages.
The big Jamaican was a great presence in the air, only beaten for the goal by Cresswell which owed much to the forward’s ability rather than the defender’s lack of.
His tackling was spot on by and large and he and Gorkss looked to have forged that similar solid partnership that saw Rangers keep an abundance of clean sheets towards the end of last season.
Matt Hill – 7/10
His best game in a Rangers shirt, as he appears to grow in confidence as each fixture goes on. His running and link up play down the left seems to be improving as well.
Under Warnock he has found a new lease of life, tackling well and showing excellent desire before driving forward to supplement the attack – here is a player that helped Wolves to promotion.
His heading as well today was good, and we are now seeing that ‘good leap for a little guy’ that was billed prior to him signing at Loftus Road.
Adel Taarabt – 9/10
Absolutely first class once again from Adel who has added passing to his classy repertoire, laying on several opportunities for Ephraim and Simpson.
His running and creativity was familiarly effective and against Marcel Seip Taarabt appeared to have an absolute field day – his direct running worried the United rearguard.
He took his goal incredibly well, showing excellent strength before racing clear of the back-line and coolly rolling home past Bunn – an excellent display.
Alejandro Faurlín – 8/10
The Argentinean once again put in a display of real class at the centre of the park, with his excellent creativity combined with some gritty steel.
He and Mikele Leigertwood look a good partnership under Warnock as he now looks to settle down under the guidance of a stable manager.
His passing and skill was excellent once again, picking some scything balls to the front line and looking excellent in his defensive duties.
Mikele Leigertwood – 7/10
Leigertwood looked useful against his former side, and barring a few moments of madness regarding his passing, he looked an accomplished midfielder.
Mikele’s season has been blighted by inconsistency, both in where he plays on the field and his overall ability and production on the field.
Today he was relatively consistent, with some stern tackles, decent passing and overall useful play, supplementing his partner Faurlín in the middle.
Hogan Ephraim – 6/10
His performance was good, but could have been made better with a goal in the first half, missing a guilt-edge opportunity from close range.
He gave his all down the flank, but in truth created little in terms of genuine opportunity against what appeared to be a unsettled rearguard in Sheffield United.
Cannot take away from the effort and commitment he showed, first class once again in that respect, just a little more productivity would see him kick on.
Tamás Priskin – 5/10
I wish I had something good or even bad to say about Priskin, but I’ve never seen a man be so anonymous in ninety minutes of football.
‘Banana Boots’ appeared to win a couple of balls in the air, but was by and large left wanting for effort and commitment to the cause, even more perplexing that Warnock persists with him.
He lacked pace and productivity, and looked completely out of sync with his team-mates, it remains to be seen whether Warnock will stick with the Hungarian.
Jay Simpson – 7/10
Showed tremendous strength throughout with his back to goal, but didn’t get enough clear cut opportunities for my liking, particularly when you consider his goal earlier this season against the same opposition.
Jay was however too strong for the likes of Marcel Seip who was given a torrid time by the forward, and henceforth an earbashing from partner Chris Morgan.
Simpson needed a goal today to cap off a good display, but unfortunately for him it didn’t come, roll on Tuesday against Reading on that count.