Proof U's are good enough for play-offs

THE U's are safe from relegation. Whisper it still, but now how about promotion?Colchester United produced their most dazzling away performance of the season to condemn awful Barnsley to the bottom three in a one-sided clash at Oakwell on Saturday.

By Carl Marston

THE U's are safe from relegation. Whisper it still, but now how about promotion?

Colchester United produced their most dazzling away performance of the season to condemn awful Barnsley to the bottom three in a one-sided clash at Oakwell on Saturday.

Karl Duguid and Jamie Cureton struck within the opening 10 minutes to put Geraint Williams' men in complete control. It was a lead that they never looked like relinquishing.

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The only surprise was that it took until the 83rd minute for the visitors to find the back of the net again. Substitute Hogan Ephraim capped a memorable day for the club, and a marvellous week for himself, by netting his first ever senior goal.

It was only the U's third away win from 18 league and cup fixtures on the road this season, following previous triumphs at Burnley and Crystal Palace.

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But it proved that they have what it takes to be in the play-off shake up over the last third of the campaign.

Avoiding relegation, which has not even really been an issue at Layer Road in recent weeks, can usually be achieved by accumulating 51 points. Well, the U's have reached that target with 14 games still in hand!

Now they can fix their gaze intently on the clubs above them. Only Birmingham and Sunderland won among the top seven teams over the weekend, leaving the U's a mere two points adrift of the play-offs.

It would be a tall order to finish in the top six, but they have a fighting chance, starting with tomorrow's huge home fixture against third-placed West Brom.

Oakwell has never really been a happy hunting ground for Colchester teams, which made Saturday's comfortable success all the more amazing. It really was a win at a canter.

The Tykes shot themselves in the foot inside three minutes. Chris Iwelumo nodded down Chris Barker's cross into the six-yard box, where defender Adam Eckersley inexplicably decided to pass back to his keeper.

Eckersley rammed the ball straight at poor Nick Colgan, from point blank range. The startled keeper could only shin the ball a few yards, where Duguid and Cureton were queuing up to poke home. In the end, it was skipper Duguid who reacted first to net his fifth goal of the season.

Cureton may have been kicking himself for not getting the final touch, but the 31-year-old was to enjoy another outstanding afternoon. He scored one, struck the bar twice, and generally gave the Tykes defence the run-around.

His 15th goal of the season arrived in the 10th minute. It was a marvellous move, beginning deep in the U's half. Duguid and Iwelumo exchanged a one-two before the U's skipper slid a pass through to the onrushing Kevin Watson.

Midfielder Watson showed great awareness to immediately square for Cureton, and the U's front-runner obliged with a clinical strike from just inside the box. The ball whistled past Colgan's right hand, and with it went Barnsley's chances in this game.

The race is certainly on to finish the U's leading scorer. Iwelumo and Cureton are locked together on 15 goals, and this friendly rivalry is set to continue until the end of the season.

Cureton will point to the fact that six of Iwelumo's goals have come from the penalty spot. In his defence, Iwelumo can boast that all of his 15 goals have been scored in the Championship - one of Cureton's goals was in the FA Cup at Barnet.

Such was the U's dominance that both centre-halves, Matthew Mills and Wayne Brown, could have celebrated rare goals in the first period.

The excellent Mills, making his third appearance on loan from Manchester City, advanced forward majestically to fire narrowly over the top with a 20-yarder, while his defensive partner Brown sliced a shot wide when well-placed from Iwelumo's flick-on.

By contrast, U's keeper Dean Gerken was a virtual bystander. He did not have a serious save to make before the interval, although striker Marc Richards squandered a good opportunity by ballooning a free header over the bar from Eckersley's 34th minute cross.

Barnsley boos, mixed with Colchester cheers, echoed around Oakwell at the sound of the half-time whistle. And that same combination sounded at full-time - the U's supporters had a fantastic day!

Iwelumo did not appear for the start of the second-half, after taking a nasty blow to the mouth that had dislodged a couple of front teeth. He had played a key role in both goals, but the U's momentum was not affected by his withdrawal.

Substitute Richard Garcia made a welcome return after a two-match absence with a thigh strain, and the U's basically carried on where they left off in the first-half.

Defender John White nearly squeezed home a shot on the hour mark, which would have been his first ever senior goal. The ball was scrambled off the line by another example of frantic home defending.

Incredibly, Cureton then rattled the bar twice in as many minutes. He hit the woodwork with a curling shot from Johnnie Jackson's lay-off, and also struck the bar with a header.

He was still shaking his head in disbelief when walking off the pitch moments later, to be replaced by Ephraim.

And the U's two substitutes combined for the third goal. Garcia headed into Ephraim's path, and the 18-year-old cut inside three defenders before burying a low shot past static keeper Colgan. It was a sublime finish.

There was still time for Ephraim to drag a shot wide, with just Colgan to beat, as Barnsley waited to be put out of their misery.

On this form, the Yorkshiremen could well be heading back into League One. But one thing is for sure - Colchester won't be joining them!

And if the U's are not in the Championship next season, then that could mean only one thing. The Premiership! We can at least dream.

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