U's show terrific character to get point

COLCHESTER United remain marooned at the foot of the table, but they showed terrific character to earn a precious point at home to Southampton yesterday afternoon.

By Carl Marston

COLCHESTER United remain marooned at the foot of the table, but they showed terrific character to earn a precious point at home to Southampton yesterday afternoon.

A double dose of bad luck allowed the visitors to take a 20th minute lead through Jhon Viafara, only for Clive Platt to sweep home the equaliser just two minutes into the second-half.

The U's had done well to get back into this festive clash, against former manager George Burley's dangerous side, but they were indebted to a couple of wonder saves from keeper Dean Gerken to preserve a point.

Gerken grabbed the man-of-the-match award for his last-gasp cameo role. Firstly, he diverted substitute Grzegorz Rasiak's goalbound header at point-blank range.

That was a superb block, but Gerken repeated the feat in the 90th minute by arching back to claw away defender Andrew Davies' header, right on his goal-line. For good measure, he also kept out the follow-up from the same player.

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It was a breathless end to what had been a game of very few chances, and there was still time for Johnnie Jackson to force ex-Ipswich keeper Kelvin Davis into a smart save in stoppage time.

A goal then would have secured only the U's fifth win of the season, but ultimately they had to be content with a draw which means they stay bottom of the Championship.

The misfortune that led to Southampton's opener involved a ricochet off defender Danny Granville, which rolled into the path of the onrushing Stern John. The Saints striker was through on goal, and although his mis-hit low drive was skidding wide of the far post, the grateful Viafara was on hand to tuck home the loose ball from point-blank range.

Colchester's equaliser was well-worked, with the wingers combining to good effect. Kevin McLeod cushion-headed Mark Yeates' delivery to the near post, where Platt neatly converted from close-in. It was his seventh goal of the season.

Earlier, fellow striker Kevin Lisbie had spurned a good chance to chalk up his own seventh goal of the campaign. There were just eight minutes on the clock when Lisbie burst onto Luke Guttridge's excellent through ball, only to hook his shot wide of target with just keeper Davis to beat.

It was Guttridge's first league start for the U's, since his summer move from Leyton Orient. And the ex-Southend midfielder sprayed the ball around with confidence during the opening minutes.

Southampton threatened first on 18 minutes. Bradley Wright-Phillips did well to sneak in between right-back Karl Duguid and Gerken, and also to round the U's keeper, but he then took a touch too many and the ball drifted behind for a goal kick.

However, the U's fell behind just two minutes later, thanks to Viafara's third goal of the season. The Colombian benefited from John's wayward shot to slot into an empty net.

It had been a frustrating first half-hour for United. That was summed up by Yeates' wonderful free-kick into the danger zone, which only required a touch from a team-mate to secure a 26th-minute equaliser. However, no U's player managed to attack the ball as it flashed across the six-yard box.

Jackson was struggling from set pieces. His first corner of the afternoon was comfortably cleared, and the ex-Tottenham midfielder then lifted a long-range free-kick well over the bar with Davis untroubled in the 35th minute.

The Saints continued to soak up some pressure before the break. McLeod was not far adrift with a thunderous angled drive that whistled over the bar, and Jackson was then block-tackled by centre-half Davies as he tried to off-load from the edge of the box.Only a goal-line clearance denied the U's an equaliser in first-half stoppage time. Davis failed to connect cleanly with Granville's deflected delivery, which had looped into the six-yard box, and suddenly there was panic in front of goal. The ball was worked back to Adam Virgo, who let fly with a goal-bound shot that was superbly blocked by Jason Euell on the line.

However, the U's were level inside two minutes of the second period. Platt was in the right place to control McLeod's accurate downward header to guide the ball past Davis at the near post.

Gerken performed heroics to prevent Southampton from regaining the lead in the 53rd minute. Wright-Phillips turned on the edge of the box and let fly with a cracking shot that the U's keeper palmed away at full stretch.

Wright-Phillips caused a nuisance of himself again on the hour mark. The former Manchester City striker created space inside the penalty area and tried to find John with a slick pass, only for Pat Baldwin to intervene with a timely interception.

Two minutes later and Wright-Phillips was replaced by Rasiak, who made an immediate impact. The Saints substitute was soon appealing for a penalty, when his quest to meet Andrew Surman's lofted cross was denied by a combination of Virgo and Baldwin. Rasiak was convinced that a hand was used, but referee Jarnail Singh was not convinced.

U's boss Williams made a change of his own midway through the second period. Jamie Guy came on for an ineffective Lisbie, and was soon trying his luck with an acrobatic overhead kick that didn't seriously test Davis.

Chances dried up until the closing stages. Platt went close with a header that looped wide in the 86th minute, and Gerken then made the save of the game to deny the visitors just a minute later.

Substitute Rasiak climbed high to meet Wayne Thomas's pinpoint cross with a powerful header that looked a goal all the way. However, the U's keeper arched back to divert the ball over the bar.

And Gerken made a double save to earn the U's a point in the last minute of normal time. He somehow managed to prevent an effort by Davies from crossing the line, and then clawed away the follow-up from the same player. They were terrific saves, and the assistant referee had already raised his flag for offside before Rasiak bundled home the rebound.

It was Colchester's time to be denied at the death, as keeper Davis pushed Jackson's header over the bar from Yeates' cross in the third minute of injury time. That would have been the perfect time to score!

The U's will now be hoping to return to winning ways at home to Blackpool on Saturday.