It's now crunch time for U's

COLCHESTER United are tottering on the brink of relegation. A week from now and their cause might be hopeless.Put in simple terms, the U's have three home games on the bounce, over the next eight days, in which to save their season.

Carl Marston

COLCHESTER United are tottering on the brink of relegation. A week from now and their cause might be hopeless.

Put in simple terms, the U's have three home games on the bounce, over the next eight days, in which to save their season. They really need nine points out of nine to stand a fighting chance of cheating the drop into League One.

The signs are not encouraging. The U's have only won three games at Layer Road all season and yet now they must try and win three games in a little over a week!

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Saturday was just the latest in a succession of depressing days for Geraint Williams' strugglers. Not only did they slither to their fourth defeat in a row at the hands of hosts Crystal Palace but the bulk of their relegation rivals tasted victories elsewhere.

Preston won at Charlton (2-1), Sheffield Wednesday defeated QPR (2-1), Coventry City edged out Norwich (1-0), and Sheffield United poached a surprise 1-0 win at Plymouth.

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As a result, United are now a daunting nine points adrift of safety, with just 10 games remaining, six at home and four away.

The U's did not look like a basement club, propping up the rest of the Championship, at least during the first-half at Selhurst Park. It was 1-1 at the break with play-off chasing Palace only finding the net via an own goal from Phil Ifil.

But in truth, the Essex club were disappointing in the second period. The Eagles stepped up the pace, bossed possession and peppered the target with shots and headers. By contrast, home keeper Julian Speroni could afford to relax.

It was not until after Ben Watson's 74th minute strike, which proved to be the match-winner, that the U's threatened to score again. Their Championship status is hanging by a thread.

Furthermore, it's not as though Crystal Palace were a team in form. Neil Warnock's side had stuttered to just one win in their previous eight fixtures, and had only won five matches at Selhurst Park all season.

A helping hand from the assistant referee, and U's defender Ifil, enabled the Londoners to take the lead in the 20th minute. U's boss Williams was adamant, in his post-match press conference, that his side should have been awarded a free-kick for offside against Scowcroft, before Palace took the throw-in that resulted in the opening goal.

The impressive Danny Butterfield, who was a menace from his right-back role all afternoon, swung over a dangerous cross that was aimed in the direction of Scowcroft. Two defenders converged, and although Chris Coyne avoided heading past his own keeper, the covering Ifil could only divert the ball home from point-blank range.

It was hard luck on Ifil, who had also suffered the misfortune of scoring an own goal in the 4-1 defeat at Plymouth in midweek. That's two career goals for the 21-year-old, and both of them own goals!

The U's were level just three minutes later. Kevin Lisbie has been a big hit since his arrival last summer, and he chalked up his 12th goal of the campaign with another calm finish.

Lisbie burst onto Clive Platt's pass, and he kept his cool to run through and plant the ball beyond the advancing Speroni. It was a similar goal to his one at Plymouth four days earlier.

The woodwork came to Colchester's rescue twice before half-time. Firstly, Watson's thunderous free-kick crashed off the bar, and leading scorer Clinton Morrison then struck the far post with a deft header from another Butterfield cross.

United were forced further and further back in the second period. Dean Hammond, enjoying only his second start since his move from Brighton, this time in central midfield, was not far adrift with a header from Ifil's cross, but otherwise it was one-way traffic.

Morrison had a 66th minute goal wiped out for offside, but it was the U's who were cursing their luck when substitute Ashley Robinson's cross took a couple of deflections to land at the feet of Watson, who instinctively thumped home a low drive from 10 yards out.

United thought they had grabbed a second equaliser on 83 minutes. Lisbie squeezed home Ifil's cross, but was adjudged to have been standing in an offside position.

Good luck always seems to be in short supply when you're a team trying to fend off relegation. But Colchester need to make their own luck tomorrow, otherwise relegation could be a formality.

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