U's face an uphill task to survive

SHELL-shocked Colchester United slumped to their heaviest defeat of the season, and in the process slithered into the relegation zone for the first time in 15 months, following a miserable afternoon in south Wales.

By Carl Marston

SHELL-shocked Colchester United slumped to their heaviest defeat of the season, and in the process slithered into the relegation zone for the first time in 15 months, following a miserable afternoon in south Wales.

The U's failure to protect a lead was exploited for the second time in a week, leaving Geraint Williams' men with a huge challenge to retain their Championship status.

This was one of the most depressing games of Williams' reign in the hot-seat. The U's know that they have to deliver top-notch performances, to even stand a chance of forcing results in the second tier of the Football League.

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And for the most part, they have held their own since their triumphant promotion of 2005-06.

There were four conclusive away defeats last season, at Leeds (3-0), Sunderland (3-1), Plymouth (3-0) and Derby (5-1). But the U's were never in the precarious state that they now find themselves in, following the rout at Cardiff.

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United were in the top half of the table when they suffered their away day blues last term. After Saturday, they find themselves in the bottom three, with Norwich and Cardiff leapfrogging them in the table.

To make matters worse, the home record is giving cause for concern, with just two Layer Road successes all season. They let a two-goal lead slip against leaders Watford last week, eventually crumbling to a 3-2 defeat.

Saturday's statistics show that the U's were 1-0 up at half-time, but that only tells half the story. Johnnie Jackson's superb 44th minute opener was the Essex side's only shot on target in the first period.

By contrast, the Bluebirds peppered the target and also struck a post via Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's cracking effort.

The U's were lucky to be ahead at the interval, but they had been given a golden chance to hold onto their advantage and so snatch a backs-to-the-wall away success. That was the half-time plan, yet those best intentions were kicked into touch by classy Cardiff after the break.

Dave Jones' men scored four goals in a 17-minute spell to turn this game on its head. The U's were quite literally blown away in the wet and blustery conditions.

Goals from Steve Thompson, Peter Whittingham, Hasselbaink and Adam Virgo (own goal) ripped the guts out of United. There was never any suggestion of a dramatic comeback during the last 20 minutes.

These are hard times. The U's are in the relegation mire, but they always knew that this season was going to be tougher than the last. They just have to dig deep and regain their self-belief over the coming months.

Jackson's goal stunned the Ninian Park faithful. The visitors had been under the cosh for virtually the whole of the first period, until Jackson nipped in front of defender Kevin McNaughton to deftly control Kevin McLeod's cross, and then swiftly fired home at the far post.

“Daylight robbery” was the popular phrase reverberating around this old ground - City are planning to move to a new stadium across the road - during the half-time interval.

There was always a danger that Cardiff would rally in the second period, but few could have predicted the speed and ferocity of their demolition act.

Winger Whittingham was the chief destroyer, with his powerful running and excellent crossing from the left flank, while Thompson and Hasselbaink provided the firepower.

Ex-Rangers striker Thompson grabbed the equaliser in the 52nd minute, timing his run to perfection to bundle home Hasselbaink's low cross inside the six-yard box.

The turning point arrived on 56 minutes. McLeod spurned a good opportunity to regain the lead, when faced with a one-on-one with keeper Kasper Schmeichel. But the Manchester City loanee blocked McLeod's shot, and within 60 seconds the ball was in the net at the other end of the pitch.

Whittingham was excellent all afternoon, and the former Aston Villa winger propelled Cardiff into a 2-1 lead by smashing home a shot from the edge of the box, the ball appearing to take a deflection on its way into the roof of the net.

The U's were tottering, and they were down and out when Hasselbaink converted Whittingham's cross with a slick finish in the 66th minute. Virgo diverted another Whittingham delivery into his own net just three minutes later, and that completed United's misery.

Norwich's home win over Sheffield United condemned the U's to the relegation zone - they spent most of August, 2006, in the bottom three of the Championship, but had not been back there since beating Burnley 2-1 at Turf Moor in early September.

At least they have a quick chance to clamber out of the drop zone next weekend, when the Canaries visit Layer Road for what should be a mouth-watering showdown (5.20pm kick-off in front of the Sky TV cameras).

The U's have the attacking thrust to score goals. That has never been in doubt this season.

But they must stop shipping goals at the other end, and quickly, otherwise their Championship status will be on the line.

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