Ipswich moved five points clear at the top of the Championship with a resourceful win at Bramall Lane yesterday. Despite being penned inside their own half for long periods by a Sheffield United side that started well but faded badly, the League leaders were rarely discomfited as they moved a significant step closer to a return to the Premiership.
An unexpected debut goal from David Unsworth, who has joined for the rest of the season on loan from Portsmouth, and a second-half strike from Shefki Kuqi, turned what promised to be an awkward test for the Suffolk side into an ultimately comfortable afternoon. It also completed a satisfying double following their 5-1 thrashing of United last November.
Disguised somewhat by their FA Cup form, this was Sheffield's third successive League defeat and they have now dropped out of the play-off places. Their next game is a week today when West Ham will be the visitors in a fourth round replay, with the winners earning a trip to Highbury.
But despite their continued excellence in cup competitions, their manager, Neil Warnock, is struggling to coax consistent performances out of his side in the Championship.
"Frustration, I think, is the word because I didn't think we played badly at all," said Warnock. "It was a fantastic goalkeeping display from Kelvin Davis whereas Paddy Kenny hasn't had a shot to save but has conceded two. Knowing us, we'll probably end up getting to the final of the Cup and that will continue to distract us in the League."
Ipswich struggled to match their hosts' early intensity as Sheffield started much the stronger, both Andy Gray and Phil Jagielka going close in the first 10 minutes. It was entirely against the run of the play when they went ahead midway through the first half.
Kuqi held the ball up long enough for Unsworth to come thundering past him and he slipped a neat ball into his path. The former Everton defender, playing his first-ever League game outside the top-flight of English football, advanced to the corner of the six-yard area and shaped to cross. As Paddy Kenny crept across his goal to anticipate the delivery, he smashed the ball into the roof of the net inside the keeper's near post.
Just before the break, the Blades wasted what would prove to be their best chance of the game. Michael Tonge's free- kick cleared everyone apart from Leigh Bromby at the far post, but the defender directed his header the wrong side of the post from close range.
Tonge's influence was growing at this stage and his curling effort forced a fine save from Davis as the home side begun the second half as strongly as they had the first. But just as they had then, Ipswich found the best way to ease the pressure.
When a corner was only partially cleared, Ian Westlake's shot was deflected into the path of Kuqi as the Sheffield defence - and especially a furious Warnock - appealed for offside. The striker had plenty of time to control the ball before slipping it past Kenny.
"We have played better than that this season but you have to expect games like this sometimes and it's nice to be talking about a clean sheet for a change," said Ipswich's manager, Joe Royle.
"I certainly wasn't 'genial Joe' at half-time because we hadn't played well at all. But I'm delighted by the way we defended and coped with the aerial bombardment because this is never an easy place to come."
From Kuqi's goal onwards, the game was as good as over. A return to cup action cannot come quickly enough for the Blades.
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