Match Report: Rochdale 3, Sheffield United 3
Sheffield United scored three goals but only claimed a point after being held to a draw by Rochdale at The Crown OilÂ Arena.
The result confirmed that, despite remaining in pole position to gain promotion from League One, Chris Wilder's team still have plenty of work to do before Championship football is guaranteed next term.
United looked set to enjoy a comfortable afternoon when Mark Duffy and Daniel Lafferty both converted during the early skirmishes before Keith Hill's men, aided and abetted by an uncharatistically erratic defence, dragged themselves back on level terms. Billy Sharp restored the visitors' advantage when he swept home midway through the second period but Nathaniel Mendez-Laing ensured Rochdale claimed a deserved share of the spoils during the closing stages.
Barring a brief 10 minute spell, United failed to impress during a fiercely contested first-half. Despite appearing to seize the game by the scruff of the neck, when both Duffy and Lafferty hit the target inside the opening 11 minutes, the visitors never enjoyed complete control. Although the pitch played its part in narrowing the gap between these two sides, Rochdale also looked more like the team which recorded seven straight victories earlier this term.
Not the one, much to United's disappointment, which entered the fixture without a win in eight.
So, when Lund levelled the scores after Davies had earlier taken advantage of some indecisive defending, it was no more than Keith Hill's men deserved.
The second period continued in much the same vein until Sharp claimed his 24th of the season and fourth in only three games. Although United's captain will take the plaudits, Chris Basham deserved an honourable mention for creating the chance.
Mendez-Laing, though, had the last laugh.
The result leaves United five points clear of second placed Fleetwood Town and eight ahead of Scunthorpe who drop to third following their 2-0 defeat by Uwe Rosler's in-form team.
If the best guage of a squad's strength is its bench then United's is very strong indeed. Wilder, naming an unchanged starting eleven, included the likes of Matt Done, Caolan Lavery and Ethan Ebanks-Landell among his substitutes while Samir Carruthers, despite last weekend's impressive cameo against Bolton Wanderers, was also a replacement.
Confidence and consistency combined to ensure United seized control of this match straight from the off with both Duffy and Lafferty on target within the opening 11 minutes. Rochdale, bizarrely, had actually impressed during the early exchanges with Oliver Rathbone a particular threat. But Ben Wilson's error - picking up Matthew Lund's backpass rather than launching it back down the pitch - provided United with a route into the game they were not going to ignore.
As Wilder, Hill and Knill all gestured furiously on the touchline, encouraging their respective players to take up the correct positions, Paul Coutts prodded a short square pass towards Duffy who duly swept home. If the former Birmingham City midfielder's effort was all about placement, Lafferty's strike was raw power.
There appeared little danger when the ball fell at the Northern Ireland international's feet, 30 yards from goal. Lafferty, though, had seen the possibilities and thundered home. If there is a weakness in this United team, it is their tendancy to concede, albeit rarely, preventable goals.
When Davies reduced the deficit with 21 minutes gone, the expressions on the faces of their rearguard confirmed suspicions the ball in to him should really have been cleared. Instead, while his markers hesitated, the former United striker turned home from close-range.
With Mendez-Laing's direct running keeping Jack O'Connell on his toes, Rochdale pressed for an equaliser. For the most part, United kept them at arms length until the interval, while James Hanson and Lafferty both saw efforts smothered at the other end.
But, three minutes after the break, Rochdale did break through when Lund beat Simon Moore. Two of United's most impressive players in recent weeks - Basham and Sharp - combined to restore United's advantage with 21 minutes remaining. Basham drove the ball forward before whipping a superb left-footed pass across Wilson's area.
Sharp had peeled away from his marker and found space to the right-hand side of the penalty spot. Threading a low shot through a crowd of bodies, he duly did the rest. Likewise, much to Wilder's obvious frustration, Mendez-Laing when United twice committed themselves in the tackle and allowed him to power home nine minutes later.
Rochdale AFC: Wilson, McNulty, McGahey, Lund, Mendez-Laing, Rathbone (Camps 79), Keane (Noble Lazarus 58), Davies (Vincenti 70), Allen Cannon, Henderson. Not used: Thompson, Logan, Morley, Kitching.
Sheffield United: Moore, Fleck, O'Connell (Carruthers 46), Basham, Basham, Sharp, Wright, Coutts, Hanson (Ebanks-Landell 57), Freeman, Duffy (Lavery 84), Lafferty. Not used: Long, Done, Wilson, O'Shea.
Referee: S Stockbridge (Tyne and Wear).