Crunch week for U's
COLCHESTER United, fresh from a mid-season break in Spain, have already proved their doubters wrong in the Championship this season.And this week, Geraint Willliams' men will find out even more about themselves, and more specifically their potential to stay up with the play-off pace.
By Carl Marston
COLCHESTER United, fresh from a mid-season break in Spain, have already proved their doubters wrong in the Championship this season.
And this week, Geraint Willliams' men will find out even more about themselves, and more specifically their potential to stay up with the play-off pace.
Back-to-back home games, against two of the top three teams, starts with the visit of third-placed Preston North End this evening. Second-placed Birmingham City are the visitors on Saturday.
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The U's have strung together a fantastic sequence of results at Layer Road, to compensate for a lean spell on the road. Can they now keep it going against the high-fliers?
Successive wins, over such lofty opponents, would propel United back into the thick of the play-off battle - they are currently five points adrift of sixth-placed Cardiff.
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However, two defeats and the Essex club would be back in mid-table, and in danger of sliding out of the top half of the table. That wouldn't equate to a crisis, not least because the U's No. 1 aim is still to accrue more than 50 points to guarantee their Championship status for a second season.
But it would be a pity if the U's season, after such a rip-roaring first half, would just peter out over the last three months of the campaign.
Preston have suffered the anguish of play-off defeats in their last two seasons, which is why Paul Simpson's men area desperate to finish in one of the two automatic promotion slots this time around.
Striker David Nugent is their star performer. The 21-year-old scored the winner when the U's lost 1-0 at Deepdale before Christmas, and he tucked home his 11th of the season to pave the way for a 2-0 win at Crystal Palace in the FA Cup last weekend.
The reward for that cup triumph at Selhurst Park is a local derby against Premiership side Manchester City in round five.
Simpson enthused: “It's a fantastic draw for us. I have wonderful memories of my time at City (as a player), and we hope that we'll get a full house at Deepdale. It's a great day to look forward to.”
But promotion remains the priority for the Lilywhites. Since they lost a crunch home fixture 2-1 to promotion rivals Derby County on New Year's Day, they have won four on the bounce against Sunderland (1-0), Barnsley (1-0), Stoke City (3-2) and Palace.
Tonight will also see the return of former U's defender Liam Chilvers, who left Layer Road to join Preston last summer following the end of his contract.
Chilvers, nicknamed the “Rock” by the U's faithful, was a key member of Phil Parkinson's squad that clinched automatic promotion to the Championship.
He has been proving a big hit at Preston as well. In addition to producing solid performances at the back, including a clean-sheet against his old team on December 23, he has also scored a couple of goals.
Former Arsenal trainee Chilvers scored in Preston's 3-2 win at Ipswich on October 17, when North End rallied from two-down to score three goals in the second-half. Chilvers netted the equaliser.
And he was also on target with the only goal of the game in the 1-0 victory at Barnsley earlier this month.
Simpson will again be without a number of injured players, including Frenchman Youl Mawene (knee), second top scorer Patrick Agyemang (hip), former Norwich midfielder Jason Jarrett (groin), ex-Blackburn left-footer Callum Davidson (thigh) and winger Joe Anyinsah (knee).
But none of these featured at Palace. In fact, tonight's squad will be strengthened by the return of experienced striker Danny Dichio after illness.
Preston do not have the best of records at Colchester. They have won just once in 10 visits, when Osher Williams and Ronnie Hildersley scored in a 2-0 win against Mike Walker's side on December 13, 1986. However, North End still won promotion from the old Fourth Division that season, finishing second to Northampton.