U's Talking Points: an afternoon of big contrasts
PUBLISHED: 12:00 20 January 2019
© Copyright Stephen Waller
Colchester United are still very much in the promotion race, but Saturday’s rollercoaster ride suggests that they are not quite good enough to make the top three automatic places.
The U’s were scintillating in the first half, and were good value for their 2-0 lead at half-time.
But the wheels came off the bandwagon in spectacular fashion in the second period, as Mansfield plundered three unanswered goals with some devastating football and some clinical finishing.
The U’s could simply not cope, and were left very deflated at the final whistle.
They are now five points adrift of the Stags, who occupy the third and final automatic promotion berth – David Flitcroft’s men also have a game in hand – but the U’s remain in the play-off zone, and they won’t be up against a team of Mansfield’s calibre every weekend until the end of the season.
Contrast in squads
Saturday’s clash exposed the difference in squads, in terms of strength in depth.
Mansfield had recruited a couple of new players the previous week, with striker Nicky Ajose signing on loan from Charlton, and midfielder Jorge Grant arriving on loan from Nottingham Forest.
Both had a big impact, especially during the second half. Ajose scored the Stags’ first goal, to halve the deficit, and then provided the killer pass for CJ Hamilton to net the winning goal, while the inspirational Grant was behind Tyler Walker’s equaliser.
Manager Flitcroft was also able to call upon some experienced players off the bench, once his team had turned the tide and got their noses in front, to kill the game.
By contrast, the U’s bench was inexperienced, due to the absence of the injured Frankie Kent (back) and joint leading scorer Luke Norris (ankle). Also, they have yet to replace loanee Aaron Collins, who returned to Wolves earlier in the month.
The U’s will always struggle to compete with some of the clubs with their bigger budgets, and bigger squads, like Mansfield.
Hopefully, though, McGreal will recruit at least one new loan signing (an attacker) before the transfer window closes at the end of this month, because that might be the difference between making the top seven, and missing out altogether.
Dazzling first half
The U’s produced probably their best half of football, during the first 45 minutes, to put them on course for inflicting what would have been only Mansfield’s fourth league defeat of the season.
They nearly took the lead on 10 minutes. Sammie Szmodics was a real livewire during the early stages, and his close-range shot was heading for the net until keeper Jordan Smith intervened with a fine save.
Four minutes later and the hosts did get their noses in front. Courtney Senior swung over a free-kick, from which Mikael Mandron rose high to head goalwards, and Tom Eastman controlled inside the six-yard box before sweeping home in some style. It was a goal that any striker would have been proud.
The U’s doubled their advantage on the half-hour mark. The tricky Senior received Mandron’s pass outside the box, but was able to dart past a couple of defenders and make room for himself before crashing home a low left-footed shot in at the near post, seeming to surprise keeper Smith.
The first half ended with Rene Gilmartin clawing away Mal Benning’s fierce long-range shot.
At this stage, the U’s were certainly in the box seat.
Sammie Szmodics went very close to increasing the U’s lead to 3-0, inside the first 60 seconds of the second period.
His header from Frank Nouble’s cross flew over the bar from 10 yards out. It would be harsh on Szmodics to suggest that this was a turning point, because the U’s defence should never have leaked three goals. But you had the feeling that a third goal at that time would have knocked the stuffing out of the visitors.
Demoralising second half
Mansfield were potent, of that there is no doubt, but they cut the U’s defence to ribbons with disturbing ease.
It began with Tyler Walker delivering a deep cross for an unmarked Nicky Ajose to chest the ball over the line, from point blank range, in the 51st minute.
Walker directed home a low shot from Jorge Grant’s accurate delivery to equalise on 64 minutes, and the comeback was complete when Ajose whipped over a marvellous cross for CJ Hamilton to stick out a boot and prod the ball home.