U's one step away from trophy final

COLCHESTER United are just one step away from a trip to the Millennium Stadium, after Richard Garcia capped a marvellous four days with the winner at hosts Cheltenham Town last night.

By Carl Marston

COLCHESTER United are just one step away from a trip to the Millennium Stadium, after Richard Garcia capped a marvellous four days with the winner at hosts Cheltenham Town last night.

The U's will now take on Swansea in an LDV Vans Trophy southern area final, to be staged over two legs, following Garcia's long-range bullet in chilly Gloucestershire.

Fresh from scoring a brace to beat Port Vale on Saturday, which propelled Colchester to the top of the table, Garcia came up trumps with the only goal of the game again at Whaddon Road last night.

Classy striker Garcia let fly from 20 yards out with a shot that gave keeper Shane Higgs no chance, so giving the visitors a 21st minute lead that they rarely looked like surrendering.

In fact, the U's blew numerous chances to add further goals in an often one-sided southern area semi-final. Garcia could have netted a hat-trick, while Gareth Williams and Greg Halford also spurned several chances to kill off this contest.

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However, manager Phil Parkinson will be delighted with what was yet another superb performance from his patched-up side.

This was their 17th win from their last 19 league and cup matches, a tremendous record.

The U's can now turn their attention to Saturday's FA Cup fourth-round tie against Championship visitors Derby County. This Layer Road showdown is already a sell-out.

Last night's hosts Cheltenham also have a big Cup tie this weekend, against Newcastle, and the Magpies management team of Graeme Souness, Terry McDermott and Dean Saunders were in the crowd to cast their eye over the Robins.

However, they must all have been much more impressed with what was a very professional display from the League One visitors.

The U's made seven changes from the side that beat Port Vale 2-1 on Saturday to rise to the top of League One. Most of these were actually enforced, due to injuries or suspension.

Keeper Aidan Davison, centre-halves Wayne Brown and Liam Chilvers, leading scorer Chris Iwelumo and midfielder Kevin Watson were all missing through injury, while left-winger Mark Yeates was serving a one-match ban. Neil Danns was also given a welcome rest, although he was named amongst the substitutes.

Karl Duguid was the skipper, in the absence of both Watson and Brown, and he registered the game's first goal attempt. Operating as a left-winger, Duguid cut inside before firing a 20-yard shot narrowly wide of the far post.

Cheltenham had only lost one of their previous 12 fixtures, and they threatened on nine minutes. Brian Wilson tested Dean Gerken with a low drive that the U's young keeper comfortably saved.

At the other end, Robins' keeper Shane Higgs clutched onto a fierce shot from Greg Halford, and was again in the right place to catch Robbie King's long-range effort in the 14th minute, following Gareth Williams' lay-off.

This was teenage midfielder King's second start for the senior side, following an appearance in the previous round of the LDV Vans Trophy at MK Dons.

United were close to breaking the deadlock on 16 minutes. Centre-half Garry Richards flicked on a corner, and George Elokobi surged in to stab goalwards from six yards out. Higgs managed to smother the danger.

However, the visitors did take the lead in the 21st minute, thanks to a real rocket from Garcia. It was his fourth goal of the month, and his fifth of an injury-troubled season.

The Australian received Halford's short pass and let fly from just outside the box with a stinging low drive which beat Higgs all ends up. The ball ended up in the corner of the net.

Two minutes later and a jubilant Garcia should have doubled the lead. The U's striker spooned a free header over the bar, from Duguid's delivery, with just Higgs to beat.

Cheltenham were on the rack. Higgs let a speculative shot from Halford slip from his grasp, although the loose ball rolled to safety, and Duguid then peppered the target with an angled drive on the half-hour mark.

The hosts finally relieved the pressure with an encouraging attack in the 38th minute, and Gerken was scrambling across his line as Steve Gillespie's well-struck effort drifted wide.

Apart from a couple of changes up front, the Robins were fielding a full-strength team. They stepped up a gear in search of an equaliser before the break, and Gerken did well to drop to his knees and cling onto skipper John Finnigan's dipping shot from the edge of the box.

Despite coming under pressure at the end of the half, the U's could have been more than one-goal ahead at the break.

The U's tried to kill off the game during the early stages of the second period. Halford headed straight into Higgs' arms, from Williams' sixth corner of the evening, and the Robins custodian then did well to fingertip a looping header from Richards over his bar, following Halford's long throw.

On the hour mark, goalscorer Garcia raced onto Sam Stockley's intelligent pass forward. He looked poised to shoot, but instead chose to chip the ball across the face of goal. Alas, there was no team-mate on hand to apply the finishing touch.

Cheltenham had struggled to make any headway since the break, so manager John Ward responded by making a double substitution in the 71st minute. Leading scorer Kayode Odejayi and Craig Armstrong were the players introduced.

Yet it was United who continued to press. Garcia was desperately close to scoring a second goal in the 77th minute. He looked on aghast as his header from Williams' free-kick dropped just the wrong side of a post.

It was Williams' turn to squander a good chance, following a swift Colchester break. Izzet and Halford combined to set up the Welshman, who blazed wide from an excellent position.

There were four minutes left on the clock when Williams again tried his luck from distance. This time his snap-shot flew high and wide.

The Robins almost snatched a dramatic equaliser in the 88th minute. Richards nearly turned the ball into his own net, under pressure from Craig Armstrong, only for the ball to bounce off a post, and although substitute Odejayi steered home the rebound, referee Mr Williamson had already blown his whistle for a foul.

That was the only real scare of an otherwise very satisfying evening for the U's.

COLCHESTER United boss Phil Parkinson was delighted by last night's performance. “I know I'm saying it every week, but I can't speak highly enough of the character in this squad,” he said.

“This competition represents probably our best chance of winning some silverware, and we have a terrific opportunity to play in a final in a fantastic stadium. Some players go their whole career without winning anything.

“I'm very proud of my players. They are all hungry for success, and I thought this was the best of our three performances in this competition. It was very controlled, and I felt we were always in charge.

“It was another terrific goal from Richard (Garcia). He works his socks off up front,” added Parkinson.

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