SHEFFIELD UNITED 0-1 BURTON ALBIONLucas Akins' sixth goal of the season was all that required to send Albion eight points clear of third place in Sky Bet League One affording manager Nigel Clough a triumphant return to Bramall Lane on his first return visit after leaving Sheffield United at the end of last season.
Albion may have been wondering how they had not gone in at half time in the lead after a largely dominant display in the first 45 minutes but a strong run down the left and a sublime finish from Akins put Albion firmly in the driving seat just four minutes after the interval. From there the Brewers comfortably saw out the game as the Blades, well and truly blunted, put in an abject second half performance in front of their own fans with Jon McLaughlin a virtual spectator for the second half.
Other results went Albion's way on the night as both Walsall and Wigan were held to goalless draws and defeat for Gillingham at Fleetwood put the Brewers firmly back in the driving seat in the league table. It could hardly have gone better for Clough's men as the first of three successive away games was chalked off with three points.
There was a big boost for the Brewers as Mark Duffy passed a fitness test to reclaim his place in the starting line-up at Bramall Lane. He came back in for Mason Bennett, the Derby loanee dropping to the bench. The Birmingham man was a welcome figure returning to the team as Nigel Clough looked for three points at his previous club.
Sheffield United kept faith with former Albion loanee Florent Cuvelier in their midfield. The Belgian has been a recent starter for the Blades after replacing the suspended Dean Hammond. Albion fans remember Cuvelier's ability well after his cameo appearance and goal at Hartlepool last season that secured a vital three points on the way to promotion from League 2.
After Burton had begun knocking the ball around with confidence in the opening stages it was the home side that threatened to make the early breakthrough. A poor touch from Duffy allowed Billy Sharp to send Matty Done through on the left. It was a tight call but Jon McLaughlin just got there first to steal the ball off his toe as the United man was sent spectacularly flying inside the box. It was good anticipation from the Burton stopper who did well to hold on to the ball as the two collided.
Albion's first real effort came in the ninth minute. Neat build up play allowed Damien McCrory to swing in a ball that Stuart Beavon laid into the path of Calum Butcher. The midfielder needed to reset his sights as his shot flew over.
Sharpshooter Billy Sharp had a header cleared by Phil Edwards as he found space at the back post to head Done's cross towards goal.
Butcher was closer, much closer the next time he had a sight of goal on 11 minutes. Turning on a pass into the middle he struck a low shot that seemed to be arrowing towards the bottom corner until keeper George Long got down well to get a vital touch and push it around the post.
United were looking lively as they looked to get back to winning ways and former Ilkeston man Che Adams watched in frustration as a goalbound shot cannoned back off McCrory from the edge of the box.
It was Duffy's turn to be denied next. A quickly taken free kick almost caught United napping when Edwards driven cross rebounded out to and the Burton winger was able to cut inside and get a shot away that Long managed to parry behind.
Skipper John Mousinho picked up a rare yellow card for the Brewers as he brought down Done as Sheffield threatened to break away. Good pressure on Robbie Weir saw him crowded out and robbed of possession but the captain did what he needed to do to bring the attack to a halt.
Akins looped a header into the waiting arms of long on 37 minutes. The winger, at full stretch drifted in from his wide position and a header back towards Butcher would have left the midfielder with a great chance but on the stretch a goalbound effort was as good as could be expected.
Stuart Beavon ripped a dipping 25 yarder just over the crossbar with Long unable to get anywhere near it as Albion looked to land the first blow as half time approached.
With chances at a premium it was perhaps no surprise that the game went into half time goalless. Albion had, by and large, looked the more likely to score but could not find that elusive breakthrough.
Half time: Sheffield United 0-0 Burton Albion
Albion started as they finished the first half and were ahead on 49 minutes. McCrory cut out a poor hopeful forward pass from United and released AKINS down the left. The winger continued unchallenged into the box and when he was allowed to cut back in on his right foot the space in the far bottom corner of the net opened up like a chasm and the Brewers winger did not disappoint finding the corner with unerring accuracy. On the balance of play it was no more than the Brewers deserved.
Akins almost had a second on 55 minutes as United's defending went to pot. Neill Collins got in a mix up with his goalkeeper chesting the ball past him inside his own box and Beavon, foraging around in the box as ever, snatched possession, unselfishly laying the ball into the path of the Brewers goalscorer who was unlucky to see his shot rebound off a covering defender.
Nigel Adkins in the United dugout sent on his reinforcements before an hour had gone with Cuvelier replaced with Dominic Calvert-Lewin and former Rams man Paul Coutts asked to make way for youngster Ben Whiteman.
Another former Derby man, skipper Jay McEveley was withdrawn with what looked like a knock and he was replaced by a former Burton loanee, Alex Baptiste, a player signed by Nigel Clough during Burton's Conference days. Baptiste dropped in at right back with ex-Albion favourite John Brayford switching to the left hand side of the defence.
Albion waited for the 74th minute before making their first change. It was a straight swap in attack as Beavon was afforded a rest and Bennett was sent on as the fresh legs to torment the United defence. And torment then he most certainly did. With his first touch he brought the ball down on the touchline and burst past David Edgar drawing a foul and a booking for the Canadian defender.
The home fans were restless and many were heading for the exits with ten minutes of the game remaining. Duffy went to ground under a strong challenge causing some concern, particularly folllowing the ankle injury that kept him out of Saturday's draw with Walsall. The winger continued for a short while but was eventually replaced by Callum Reilly with a little over five minutes remaining. Akins switched to the right so that Reilly could drop in on his more favoured left hand side.
Ironic boos went around Bramall Lane as the fourth official indicated six added minutes just at the moment when Collins got his head on a cross and forced Jon McLaughlin into a rare moment of second half action. McLaughlin was then left in a heap by a challenge on him as he claimed the ball which only added more time to the end of the game. Albion took the opportunity to make a third change with Calum Butcher, after another all energy display in the middle of the park, making way for Tom Flanagan.
After what proved to be eight added minutes referee Seb Stockbridge brought the game to an end and Albion had secured another clean sheet and more importantly three more valuable League One points as 626 Albion fans went home very happy for a third time from Bramall Lane.