Fantasy football for U's

THIS season just keeps getting better and better. I know it's verging on fantasy football, but Championship gatecrashers Colchester United are now just two points off the play-offs!Forget the top six.

By Carl Marston

THIS season just keeps getting better and better. I know it's verging on fantasy football, but Championship gatecrashers Colchester United are now just two points off the play-offs!

Forget the top six. The U's are just riding a wave at the moment, a wave that has seen them rise from 23rd spot to ninth place in just over two months.

Geraint Williams' men still have just one target in mind - avoiding the drop back down to League One, which means finishing no lower than fourth-from-bottom.

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But the U's are not playing like a side that are destined for a dramatic fall from grace. Even league leaders Cardiff City crumbled in the cauldron atmosphere of another packed Layer Road on Saturday.

Second-half goals from Kevin McLeod, Jamie Guy and Jamie Cureton (penalty) swept the U's onwards and upwards into the top 10 on the back of six straight home victories.

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Cardiff are still top but their lead has been sliced to a mere one point. Lancashire neighbours Preston and Burnley are hot on their heels and they will be mightily relieved that they don't have to visit Layer Road again this season.

U's boss Williams used to watch Cardiff as a kid. He was a season ticket-holder at Ninian Park but there was no room for sentiment on Saturday. His unfashionable squad, who play as a team and have perhaps the best spirit in the division (most of the squad have played together for a few seasons now), simply refuse to give their more illustrious opponents any respect, week-in, week-out.

The likes of Derby, Ipswich and Southampton have all failed to perform within the confines of the U's home ground and although Cardiff coped a little better, they ultimately suffered the same fate - an ignominious defeat.

Michael Chopra, the division's leading scorer, duly pocketed his 11th goal of the campaign with a simple tap-in. But, otherwise, the former Newcastle United striker had a day to forget, which is again testimony to the U's defence.

United have made a habit of starting home games at a frantic pace. This was no exception, although the score remained blank at half-time.

Chances were limited at both ends. The Essex hosts had the ball in the back of the net in the eighth minute, when Chris Iwelumo hooked home Cureton's delivery. Alas, the Scotsman was standing in an offside position.

Cureton is buzzing at the moment. The former Norwich striker scored his seventh goal of the season in the 1-1 draw at Carrow Road in midweek and he was not far adrift with a long-range shot that had keeper Neil Alexander scurrying his goal.

Cardiff began to have more joy towards the end of the first period. Riccardo Scimeca, the former Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest midfielder, headed a foot over the bar from Joe Ledley's cross and Chopra then missed from even closer in.

George Elokobi, who was handed his first start since mid-August, in the absence of Cardiff loanee Chris Barker (not eligible to play against his parent club), looked composed on his return to the team. But the Cameroon-born defender was powerless to prevent winger Paul Parry from whipping over a cross which Chopra volleyed wide. He was standing just three yards from goal.

The game burst into life at the start of the second-half and didn't let-up until the final whistle. Former Arsenal and Everton striker Kevin Campbell nearly crowned his first Cardiff start with a goal but his 48th minute shot cannoned back off the underside of the bar.

A minute later, and Colchester went ahead. Cureton was unable to register a telling shot from Greg Halford's excellent cross but Johnnie Jackson intelligently slid the ball into the path of McLeod, who tucked away a left-footed shot at the far post.

Left-winger McLeod, who was a Swansea City player at the start of the season, certainly enjoyed scoring in front of the Cardiff supporters! It was his second goal in successive weekends, following his opener in the 2-0 win over Southampton.

Three goals followed, all of them involving substitutes. Cardiff boss Jones introduced Willo Flood in place of Ledley in the 61st minute and the Dubliner was soon carving out the Bluebirds equaliser.

Flood surged into the box and crossed low into the danger-zone. Pat Baldwin looked set to clear but he failed to connect cleanly with his left foot, enabling the alert Chopra to bundle the ball into an unguarded net for a 66th minute equaliser.

Cardiff were suddenly in the ascendancy. In fact, they appeared the more likely winners until a double substitution, which heralded the arrival of Guy and Ritchie Jones, swung the game back in the U's favour.

Guy had netted twice on the road this season, in the 2-1 defeats at West Brom and Coventry, but his first-ever senior goal at home was to prove a winner, rather than a mere consolation.

Cureton's 83rd minute cross was only half-cleared, enabling Kem Izzet to head the ball into the danger-zone. Guy was up against towering defender Darren Purse, so the odds were against him, but the U's teenager showed terrific strength to keep the ex-Birmingham defender at bay before prodding beyond the reach of keeper Alexander.

Layer Road went wild with delight. And any fears of a late Cardiff rally were snuffed out by an injury-time penalty. Midfielder Stephen McPhail dragged down substitute Jones just when the Manchester United loanee was preparing to shoot. Referee Jon Moss sent off McPhail, who was the last man, and Cureton gleefully converted the penalty. He rolled the ball low to Alexander's right to chalk up his eighth goal of the campaign.

At the moment, the U's are invincible at home. Now they take to the road over the next couple of weeks to visit Leeds and Sunderland.

When the fixtures were published last June, and back-to-back trips to Elland Road and the Stadium of Light were unveiled, it was inconceivable that Colchester would be visiting these two big clubs while sitting above them in the table.

Back at Layer Road, though, it's getting difficult to differentiate reality from fantasy!

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