If Sheffield United can hold on to Ched Evans and James Beattie, automatic promotion might be a more realistic prospect than it currently looks.
In the first half, they were slow in the build-up and looked too pedestrian to create chances. It was another nothing sort of game that seemed to be heading nowhere until Evans scored his first goal; he’s now on 13 in all competitions.
But after the break, United upped the tempo, pressed and had far more of the ball in the last third, creating many chances. For long stretches, Rochdale could not get out of their half. It came not through great football or individual brilliance, but the basics of harrying, forcing mistakes and then playing the ball into the right areas.
The defence was good and apart from the one chance in the first half, Rochdale were restricted to long-range efforts. Apart from Francois Christmas Special, the rest of the defence kept it simple and did the basics. Doyle did a nice job just in front, and McDonald, Quinn and Williamson, although not always precise with their passing, had enough to get in beyond Dale and into the last third.
Cresswell toiled hard but Evans looked a class above again and easily could have scored five. Once the second goal went in, the game was effectively over and United never looked in any danger.
The side does not look totally convincing but in each win against poor sides they have still been full value and have kept three clean sheets. Naturally, they will need to do better against some of the teams in the top half of the division but they look a more solid outfit, with the much-maligned Doyle actually being a key man.
With a touch more creativity and pace (a la Clarke or Phillips) and another scoring threat to complement or replace Evans, if he departs in January, United should easily be able to finish in the top six. Gatecrashing the top two looks beyond them at present, though the sky could be the limit with a partnership of Evans and James Beattie that lasted beyond the transfer window.
Unlikely? Think about it: Evans is due in court in March and, despite his form – in League One, mind - would a club want to gamble on a striker who may end up in jail two or three months after signing? Beattie, meanwhile, who can undoubtedly still perform at a higher level when fit and firing, will be unlikely to have sufficiently proved that to all but the Doncasters and Coventrys of the Championship; would he want to swap a promotion bid for a relegation scrap?