U’s miserable form continues

COLCHESTER United are in severe danger of throwing away a top six finish after their miserable run of form continued yesterday with defeat at Exeter

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Exeter City 2 Colchester United 0

COLCHESTER United are in severe danger of throwing away a top six finish after their miserable run of form continued yesterday with defeat at Exeter.

Despite an improved performance from the U’s at St James Park, a combination of home keeper Paul Jones and the woodwork frustrated the promotion-chasing Essex side.

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And a rejuvenated Exeter, having taken the lead against the run of play through Stuart Fleetwood’s 33rd minute goal, were able to seal their win in the final minute courtesy of Ryan Harley’s spot kick.

Despite a slight upturn in performance levels, the fact remains that Aidy Boothroyd’s side have now gone seven games without a win and have lost their last four away games in succession.

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It means that if Huddersfield win by three or more goals at lowly Wycombe today, then the U’s will drop out of the play-off places for the first time since last September.

With Exeter coming into this game unbeaten in five and the U’s without a win in six, Boothroyd made one significant change to his starting line-up - striker Steven Gillespie dropped and replaced by midfielder John-Joe O’Toole.

As a result, Colchester lined up with a flexible 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 formation. In defence, the U’s played with Clive Platt as the lone striker and Kemi Izzet sitting just in front of the back four, while in attack wingers Ian Henderson and Kevin Lisbie became supporting strikers.

The Grecians stuck with the 3-5-2 formation which has served them so well in recent weeks, however it was clear that the visitors had won the tactical battle in the early stages.

After Izzet had a deflected shot well saved and then hacked behind for a corner, David Prutton twice came agonisingly close to breaking the deadlock for Colchester. First, in the 16th minute, Prutton saw a close range header well-saved following Phil Ifil’s fine cross from the right, while defender Richard Duffy made a fine last ditch intervention to prevent John-Joe O’Toole heading in the rebound.

Prutton then came even closer to scoring in the 24th minute when he smashed the crossbar with a fine free-kick from just outside of the box.

With his full-back system getting overrun, Exeter manager Paul Tisdale made a change in the 27th minute. Striker Stuart Fleetwood came on for defender Rob Edwards, who had been struggling with a hamstring problem, and the Devon side mimicked Colchester’s 4-5-1/4-3-3 line-up.

The switch completely changed the game as, just five minutes later, sub Fleetwood – who tormented the U’s in the reverse fixture – latched onto Marcus Stewart’s through ball, all too easily shrugged off the attentions of Magnus Okuonghae and produced a smart finish for the opener.

After a quiet finish to the first half and opening of the second, Boothroyd brought on Anthony Wordsworth for Henderson in the 57th minute and switched to a 4-4-2. Wordsworth, with his first touch, soon saw a rocket of a long-range free-kick clip the top of the bar.

Colchester continued to huff and puff, while at the other end they had a major let off on the hour mark when a great shout for an Exeter penalty was turned down. Fleetwood easily spun marker Okuonghae in the box and, despite the Nigerian appearing to pull the striker back, the referee remained unmoved. Moments later the hosts had a weaker penalty shout waved away when Corr collided with Okuonghae and Queudrue.

After the introduction of both Steven Gillespie and Ashley Vincent off the bench, Colchester pushed hard for an equaliser. They were, however, denied by yet another superb save from keeper Jones four minutes from time when he produced an instinctive stop from Wordsworth’s close range header.

With the visitors committing men forward in attack, Exeter were ultimately able to exploit the space on the counter-attack and they gleefully wrapped up their third successive home win in the final minute. Keeper Ben Williams made great stop at the feet of sub Richard Logan, but when Fleetwood’s follow up shot hit Gillespie’s arm in the box a penalty was controversially given.

Frustrated Boothroyd was enraged at the referee, claiming it was ball to hand, but his shouts fell on deaf ears and Ryan Harley tucked away the resultant penalty.

Paul Tisdale’s Exeter City have now gone six games without defeat and look as though they will avoid the drop, while in contrast Colchester look like they might be about to throw away a season’s hard work.

It just goes to show that at this stage of the season momentum is key – and if Colchester want to cling onto their promotion dreams then they need to stop the rot soon.

- For a full match preview of Colchester’s Bank Holiday clash with Millwall, see Monday’s EADT.

Exeter: Paul Jones 9; Richard Duffy 7, Matt Taylor (capt) 8, Rob Edwards 6; Steve Tully 7, Liam Sercombe 6, James Dunne 6, Ryan Harley 7, George Friend 7; Barry Corr 7 (Richard Logan 68 – 6), Marcus Stewart 7.

Unused subs: Andy Marriott, Scott Golbourne, Bertrand Cozic, Richard Logan, Joe Burnell, Stuart Fleetwood, Ryan Taylor.

Booked: Dunne (70).

Colchester: Ben Williams 6; Phil Ifil 6 (Ashley Vincent 80 – 6), John White 6, Magnus Okuonghae 5, Franck Queudrue 6; John-Joe O’Toole 5, Kevin Lisbie 5, Ian Henderson 5 (Anthony Wordsworth 57 – 7), David Prutton 7, Kemi Izzet 6, Clive Platt 6 (Steven Gillespie 74 – 6).

Unused subs: Mark Cousins, David Fox, Danny Batth, Anthony Wordsworth, Tom Bender.

Booked: Izzet (43).

U’s man-of-the-match: David Prutton.

Attendance: 6,297.

Referee: Mr P Gibbs.

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