Play-off hopefuls!

IT'S official. Colchester United are no longer relegation candidates. Whisper it still, but the U's are now play-off hopefuls!Geraint Williams' men are still focusing on accumulating enough points to ensure their survival in the Championship, which would be a terrific achievement on its own.

By Carl Marston

IT'S official. Colchester United are no longer relegation candidates. Whisper it still, but the U's are now play-off hopefuls!

Geraint Williams' men are still focusing on accumulating enough points to ensure their survival in the Championship, which would be a terrific achievement on its own. But this season has already gone beyond mere survival.

United are rubbing shoulders with the big boys. Moreover, they're beating most of them! Promotion probables Derby, Southampton and, most recently, Stoke, have all been humbled at Layer Road.

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You have to keep pinching yourself whenever you visit Layer Road these days. After losing their first two home games of the campaign, the Essex hosts have now won nine on the bounce.

Stoke arrived as one of the in-form teams in the division. They had won six and drawn one of their last seven fixtures, and had not conceded a goal in 656 minutes.

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But those figures were ruined by Colchester, who outplayed and outgunned the Potters into submission. To add to the humiliation, they leapfrogged City in the Championship table to burst into the top six.

Where to begin? Stoke's previous seven opponents had all failed to score against them, but it took the U's just 75 seconds to beat keeper Steve Simonsen.

Jamie Cureton is on fire. The 31-year-old is playing the best football of his life and he knocked Stoke for six by scoring twice inside the first 17 minutes.

Any thoughts of Simonsen keeping his eighth successive clean-sheet were quickly dashed. Cureton latched onto Wayne Brown's firm header forward and executed a deadly 20-yard chip that ballooned off the outstretched boot of defender Clint Hill and looped over the former Everton keeper.

It was Cureton's 11th goal of the season, and just 15 more minutes elapsed before he was celebrating his 12th goal in 23 appearances.

The excellent Richard Garcia hooked the ball forward and livewire Cureton stole a march on City's defence to prod home past an onrushing Simonsen, from eight yards out. Two chances, two goals. United's finishing was deadly.

By contrast, Stoke's finishing was woeful. Rarely has a visiting team peppered the target with so many shots, but without forcing keeper Dean Gerken into a save!

Ricardo Fuller, Lee Hendrie and David Brammer each had two chances to score in the first-half. Their efforts all had power, but no accuracy.

City had one slice of misfortune. While still trailing by just one goal, Mamady Sidibe bundled home into an empty net on 10 minutes, after Fuller's initial shot had been parried by Gerken. The goal was wiped out for offside against Fuller - the ex-Ipswich striker was indeed standing in an offside position, although the ball came to him via a deflection off Kem Izzet, not from a Stoke boot.

Cureton's second goal gave the U's some welcome breathing space. But while the U's leading scorer was having a field day, City's leading scorer was enduring a torrid afternoon. The hapless Fuller blazed a shot over the top from just eight yards out on 23 minutes, and then repeated the dose by blasting over the bar from a similar position just 10 minutes later.

The wild shooting was infectious. Aston Villa loanee Hendrie, who was baited by the home fans, especially after a late challenge on Garcia, also smashed a couple of shots high and wide before the break. Gerken could not believe his good fortune!

Most people in the ground were anticipating a rip-roaring second-half performance from Stoke. But it never materialised. The third goal of the match was always going to be crucial. If Stoke had scored it, then a comeback would have been on the cards.

But it was Colchester, not Stoke, who bossed possession and took total command. Greg Halford curled a free-kick into the side-netting, and Simonsen had to launch himself to his right to beat away Karl Duguid's goalbound drive.

The third goal did arrive, in the 62nd minute, to condemn City to defeat. The 3-0 margin also meant that the U's had leapfrogged their opponents on goal difference in the table.

Duguid rolled the ball out to an unmarked Chris Barker, who whipped over a deep cross from the left wing for Garcia to leap high and head powerfully goalwards. Simonsen got his fingertips to the downward header, but the ball was diverted into the net as Michael Duberry and Izzet collided on the goal-line.

Garcia was rightly claiming it as his fourth goal of the season. It was the perfect way for him to mark his first start in 10 matches, since his ankle injury. The Australian had also hit the target as a second-half substitute at Crystal Palace the previous weekend.

Gerken had just one save to make in the second period, to ensure his second clean-sheet in three matches. In fact, the 21-year-old is now keeping out Aidan Davison, who was only on the bench after his recent chest injury.

Davison must have been impressed by Gerken's full-length save to prevent Patrik Berger's 81st-minute free-kick from sneaking in at the near post. Czech Republic striker Berger (on loan from Aston Villa) was one of seven players of Premiership experience in the Stoke squad.

Once again, though, the U's had shown scant respect for their more illustrious opponents. The likes of Duberry, Hendrie and Berger hated their first visits to Layer Road.

United are up to sixth spot, their highest ever position in the club's history. They are effectively the 26th highest-placed club in the land!

Furthermore, they are the joint leading scorers in the division (West Brom have also netted 39), and can boast the most prolific strike-force - Cureton and Chris Iwelumo have scored 22 goals between them in 23 matches.

Williams' men have also collected 13 points from a possible 15 in their last five matches. And just for the record, they are now 17 points clear of the relegation zone!

However, no one was talking about relegation on Saturday night at the players' Christmas party. Christmas has come early at Layer Road this year!

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