THE talk was of how Sunderland's top scorer Stephen Elliott was going to put the Blades to the sword. But it was strike partner Marcus Stewart who delivered the cutting edge and dealt a blow to Sheffield United's promotion bid in the process.

The Republic of Ireland international was guilty by association, however, and he aided and abetted the former Ipswich Town striker when setting up his team mate with an outrageous 'Cruyff turn'.

Julio Arca sent Elliott scampering down the inside left channel, and what seemed like a blind alley at first. But the little frontman illuminated the proceedings with a turn - straight from the Dutch master's top drawer - and provided a pinpoint cross for Stewart to volley left-footed into the top corner past goalkeeper Paddy Kenny from the right of the penalty spot.

It was a sublime finish to compliment a superb piece of skill and no one deserved it more than Stewart.

Sunderland's £3.25m striker had an exceptional game.

He led the line superbly, neatly knitting midfield and attack together, and on several occasions outfoxed the opposition's defenders with his quick-thinking and consistent creativity.

Black Cats' boss Mick McCarthy hailed the 32-year-old as 'brilliant', and it was hard to disagree.

He said: "I thought Marcus Stewart was terrific. He was brilliant. It just shows you, he was getting the bird a little bit from the fans at one stage and he got an ovation when he came off. He's been fantastic this season on and off the pitch."

It was a good day all round for McCarthy's men as the victory moved the Wearsiders to within a point of second placed Wigan, and three of leaders Ipswich, who both drew at the weekend to Watford and Reading respectively.

Sunderland didn't have it all their own way, however. The home side dominated the first and the visitors shaded the honours in the second period.

Yet despite enjoying the lion's share of possession, the Blades failed to cut any slack through the Black Cats' back five; of which the 'Collins twins' and Thomas Myhre were impressive again.

The Sunderland boss hailed his side's performance - and that of his opponents - and felt his team coped well under severe second half pressure.

"They were taking chances in the end," he said. "They had their goalkeeper in our box for a corner and they were throwing it in long, but I think in the main we dealt with it.

"It was difficult to deal with when they were putting it in behind us to make us defend. But defend we did and Thomas Myhre showed what a quality keeper he is when he had to make the saves.

"We've kept a clean sheet and we've had to scrap for that. Sheffield United played well in the second half but at the end of the day it is irrelevant because we have won the game, which is all-important.

"Neill and Danny Collins were excellent, individually and collectively. When they've come in they have done very well. We saw that potential in them and it's great when it works."

Referee Peter Walton had a game he would probably rather forget. Some of the decisions were questionable at best, and both sides should be congratulated for keeping their discipline in the face of such an inept performance.

Blades' boss Neil Warnock ironically said: "I thought the referee was marvellous. He is the best referee in the league, you know. And I bet you don't print that."

McCarthy refused to comment but admitted his feelings on the official would be sent in his report to the FA on Tuesday.

The opening ten minutes were a scrappy affair and neither side created a clear opportunity.

This all changed a minute later, however, when Stewart and Elliott contrived to open up the United defence. Stewart held off his marker before slipping the ball through to his strike partner, only for him to see his left-footed shot saved at the near post by goalkeeper Kenny.

A sublime first-time flick from Stewart in the 15th minute, sent the Blades' back four for a paper on the halfway line and Elliott steaming in on goal alone.

The Irishman could only watch in frustration, however, as his delightful chip from 20 yards crashed off Kenny's crossbar and to safety. It deserved better.

All hell threatened to break loose ten minutes later when a confusing refereeing decision left all at the Stadium of Light scratching their heads.

The omniscient Stewart was once again at the centre of the play, and it was his ball that sent Dean Whitehead through in on goal.

In the ensuing melee, it looked as if the midfielder had been fouled and a penalty was given; only for the controversial official to give an indirect free-kick for a back pass.

Arca's resulting free-kick crashed against the visitor's wall.

Stewart was once again the chief architect in the 26th minute when he slipped Elliott through with a delicious ball only for Kenny to save again.

The roles were reversed ten minutes later when Elliott turned provider for his inspirational team-mate. Carl Robinson's clearance from a United corner was neatly brought down by the striker before a quick turn fed Stewart dashing in from the left. The former Huddesfield and Ipswich striker ghosted past Lee Bromby only to see his effort flash agonisingly past the far right hand post. His efforts deserved a goal, and it was no surprise when he applied the coup de grace to Elliott's trickery a minute before the break.

The goal and Stewart's all-round display had McCarthy salivating. He said: "The goal was well conceived but the execution of it was terrific. I think Stewy, certainly in the first half, ran the centre backs in channels where they didn't want to go and he really messed them about with his performance and he deserved his goal."

After the break the visitors changed their shape from 3-5-2 to 3-4-3 in a bid to rescue the game.

Sunderland survived an early scare a minute after the break when Andy Gray held off Danny Collins to swivel and shoot narrowly past Myhre's right hand post.

The Black Cats could have wrapped things up five minutes later, however, but the controversial referee missed what 27,000 fans witnessed when goalkeeper Kenny, floored Stewart just outside of the box.

United hit back leaving Sunderland with no option but to rely on the counter-attack.

The south Yorkshire side's constant pressure nearly reaped rewards in the 67th minute when Jon Harley conjured an opening. But the former Chelsea and Fulham fullback could only watch despairingly as Myhre saved brilliantly before Danny Collins cleared off the line to deny the on-coming Gray.

Myhre was the Wearsiders' hero once again 15 minutes from time when he dived full stretch to tip around the post from tricky substitute Jonathan Forte.

A rare second half attack should have wrapped it all up for the home side ten minutes from time when Whitehead broke down right before pulling the ball square in front of goal for substitute Chris Brown to finish from six yards. The youngster could only shake his head in disbelief as Kenny pulled off an outstanding double save.

In the last five minutes the visitors threw everything but the kitchen sink at the Black Cats' rearguard but the back four stood firm.

Result: Sunderland 1 Sheffield United 0.

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