Sheffield United boosted their hopes of automatic promotion to the Premier League with a hard-earned 1-0 win at Reading.
In a tame first-half showing from both sides, a Sander Berge effort from distance provided United’s best moment while Tom Ince drove narrowly wide for Reading.
United defended solidly after the interval but soon upped the tempo and made the decisive breakthrough on the hour through a fine first-time finish from Iliman Ndiaye.
It was enough for a valuable victory that moves the Blades seven points clear of third-placed Middlesbrough in the Sky Bet Championship table.
United had been in poor form, with Saturday’s 1-0 loss at Blackburn their third defeat in four league outings.
Reading had won only two of their past 10 outings but were unbeaten at the SCL Stadium in seven matches in all competitions.
United began sluggishly, with manager Paul Heckingbottom watching from the stands as he served the last game of a three-match touchline ban.
Reading were the first to threaten, with wing-back Andy Yiadom escaping along the right flank before releasing Shane Long. Long’s cross into the area appeared dangerous but the visitors’ defence managed to clear it without too much trouble.
Reading again seized the initiative going forward, with Ince bearing down on the Blades area. His effort from 20 yards was poor, though, with goalkeeper Wes Foderingham not needing to move as it flew wide.
United gradually started to find their rhythm. 12-goal top scorer Oli McBurnie nodded straight at home goalkeeper Joe Lumley, who had to make a smart stop to push away a low drive from Berge.
Ince almost broke the deadlock just before half-time but his long-range attempt narrowly missed Foderingham’s far post.
United started the second period slowly, with Reading making most of the running.
Andy Carroll headed weakly wide, from a promising Tom Holmes cross, then failed to find any power with a shot that Foderingham saved comfortably.
However, United absorbed the pressure and then broke clear to take the lead on the hour following a clever team move.
Jayden Bogle found McBurnie near the byline and his accurate cross was neatly turned in by Ndiaye at the near post for his 12th goal of the season – taking him level with McBurnie.
It may have been harsh on Reading but they swiftly set about trying to find the the equaliser.
A cross from the left from Nesta Guinness-Walker was met by a flying header from Carroll but Foderingham superbly tipped the ball over the bar.
United could have extended their lead near the end but Lumley did well to keep out a close-range effort from substitute Billy Sharp.
Reading’s Paul Ince:
“We played well tonight, we did really well. I’m just disappointed that we didn’t get anything from the game. It was a great response after the poor second half against Middlesbrough last week (a 5-0 defeat). It was a good reaction. You’re playing a team that could go up automatically or via the play-offs but we competed with them and played some good football. We mixed it up well and, in the last 15 minutes, they (United) were just kicking it up the park and you could see them at panic stations.
“I get that, today was obviously a massive win for them because it puts them seven points clear of Boro. But, for us, it was just so disappointing because we played so well and we deserved something at the end. When you look at their goal, it was just one mistake from us, one fine detail – and they go bang, bang and score. But today’s about being positive because I think the display warrants that.”
Sheffield United’s Paul Heckingbottom:
“We know where we are now. There’s always been games in hand, games either way, whatever. But now we’re seven points clear [of Boro] with 11 games left. There it is. It’s all to play for. It was a good win for us, a big win. We were really strong in the first half but we wanted to pose more of a threat in the second and the goal was a fine example of that. For all the possession that we had, we could have had more balls slid down the side of Reading’s centre-backs and really caused them more problems.
“We kept getting into that final third but then it was a case of ‘what’s next?’ We had to get their centre-backs facing the way that they didn’t want to and then see what we could produce. We had big performances all the way through, although we didn’t pass the ball as well as we would have wanted in the second half.”