Error-prone U's make it easy for Owls

COLCHESTER United served up another disappointing performance on the road, slumping to a 14th away defeat of the season at improving Sheffield Wednesday last night.

By Carl Marston

COLCHESTER United served up another disappointing performance on the road, slumping to a 14th away defeat of the season at improving Sheffield Wednesday last night.

The U's conceded two woefully soft goals, midway through the first half, to leave themselves with a mountain to climb.

It was a deficit they never really looked like wiping out.

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A mistake by Kevin McLeod gifted the Owls an opening goal in the 27th minute, which was converted by Frank Simek, and Matthew Mills then headed Chris Brunt's 35th minute corner past his own keeper for a bizarre own goal.

That effectively killed off the under-par U's.

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Wednesday are now unbeaten in five games, and have moved to within one point of Geraint Williams' stuttering side.

It has been a long, hard season for the U's, who are already safe on 53 points.

But they will want to dramatically improve on last night's poor display during their last eight fixtures, especially as they have now won just two of their last 13 games since the turn of the year, and mustered just two goals in their last six outings.

The U's were operating with Chris Iwelumo as a lone striker, in the absence of his regular attacking partner Jamie Cureton, who was being rested.

In fact, Williams made three changes to the side that shared a goalless draw with Coventry last weekend.

In came centre-half Matthew Mills, left-back George Elokobi and West Ham loanee Hogan Ephraim. Defenders Pat Baldwin and Chris Barker were dropped to the bench.

Wednesday started the brighter and front-runner Deon Burton was not far adrift with a 20-yard drive on six minutes, which keeper Dean Gerken watched soar wide of his near post.

The Owls attacked with menace again in the 14th minute. Joint leading scorer Steven MacLean ran at the U's defence and tried to set up Marcus Tudgay, only for Elokobi to intervene with a smart challenge.

This was Elokobi's first appearance since the goalless draw at Cardiff City on December 2.

Otherwise, it had been a very low-key opening 20 minutes. Winger Chris Brunt won the first corner of the game, off the head of Kevin Watson, and from this set piece Tudgay nodded over the bar from close-in.

The visitors had showed very little as an attacking threat. Richard Garcia, who was supporting Iwelumo whenever possible, did try his luck with a long-range effort, blocked by a defender on the edge of the box.

But Wednesday's dominance paid off when a mistake by Kevin McLeod enabled Simek to break the deadlock with the game's first shot on target in the 27th minute.

McLeod lost out to Simek inside the U's box, and the American-born right-back took full advantage by beating Gerken with an angled drive from 12 yards out.

It was Simek's first goal of the season, and only his second for Wednesday since his move from Arsenal during the summer of 2005.

United were now well and truly on the back foot. Danger-man Brunt caused a stir by leaving skipper Duguid trailing in his wake, but his shot was cannoned behind off a defender's boot.

The Owls, though, did not have long to wait for a second goal, and they were gifted it on a plate.

Elokobi conceded a needless corner, and Brunt's delivery to the far post was headed into his own net by Mills for a soft own goal. Mills was not even under pressure.

At least Colchester tried to find a response before half-time. Iwelumo stabbed wide from his team's first corner in the 37th minute, and McLeod was close to halving the deficit just two minutes later.

McLeod scampered on to Elokobi's quick ball forward. The former Swansea winger had just Iain Turner to beat, but the home keeper managed to block with his legs.

Garcia also volleyed over the bar from McLeod's cross, as Wednesday were put to the test.

However, the visitors suffered a further blow just before the interval when Duguid limped off with a knee injury, to be replaced by substitute Baldwin.

Williams made a second change for the start of the second period.

McLeod had again failed to fire on all cylinders, and so he was replaced by midfielder Johnnie Jackson, with Ephraim shifting to the left flank.

Yet it was still Wednesday in the driving seat.

Burton looked poised to tuck home a third goal in the 55th minute, only to be denied by a brave challenge from Elokobi on the edge of the six-yard box.

Seconds later and centre-half Richard Wood pushed upfield to bolster the attack. His powerful header looped agonisingly wide of Gerken's far post.

At the other end, Ephraim tried to conjure up some magic for the U's. His opportunist shot curled only a foot wide of target, following Kem Izzet's gutsy challenge in the air.

United made their third and final substitution just after the hour mark, with Jamie Guy coming on for Watson to give Iwelumo some help in attack.

And Guy made a quick impression, charging down the wing to earn the U's only their third corner of the evening on 68 minutes.

From Jackson's delivery, defender Mills glanced a header wide of the far upright.

Guy at least gave the U's some impetus, and he nearly halved the deficit with a low shot that beat Turner but rolled wide.

Wednesday came even closer to scoring when Brunt hit the post in the 75th minute.

The former Middlesbrough trainee took his time before lashing in a shot that struck the far post and rebounded rather fortuitously into the arms of Gerken, who was lying on the floor.

United had not really looked like finding a way back into this game, and the Owls comfortably played out time to stretch their current unbeaten run to five games.

Tudgay headed over the bar from a promising position in the 87th minute, and Gerken smothered a last minute shot from substitute Rocky Lekaj.

All in all, this was another disappointing away performance from Colchester. But they have a quick chance to make amends at Southampton on Friday night.

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