Cambridge United were unable to recover from a nightmare start against Walsall at the Bank’s Stadium, which saw the Saddlers take the spoils 2-1 in Sky Bet League Two.
Harvey Knibbs struck a late consolation for the U’s, who in the end fell to a lightening start from the Saddlers who registered twice inside the first ten minutes.
The U’s lined up with three changes as Dimitar Mitov returned in goal and Leon Davies and Harvey Knibbs replaced the absent Marc Richards and Kyle Knoyle.
United got off to the worst possible start when Josh Gordon turned in Shay Facey’s low, flat cross over the line from three yards out to put the Saddlers in front within a minute. It transpired the Saddlers man had done so with his hand, but the goal stood.
The advantage was increased by the Saddlers on nine minutes, when Mat Sadler got across the U’s front post from a corner and headed past Mitov to double United’s early problems.
United were perhaps a little fortunate not to be further behind on 17 minutes when Shay Facey caught Dan Jones napping and pulled a cross back to an unmarked Wes McDonald inside the U’s area, but his shot was straight into the hands of Mitov. The U’s keeper was alert to stop the same man from a similar situation three minutes later, as they continued to struggle to get a foothold in the encounter.
United began to put their foot on the ball soon after though and created their first clear opening on 27 minutes when a superb delivery off the right by Paul Lewis whipped on to the head of Harvey Knibbs, but his effort from six yards lacked direction and fell directly into the hands of Liam Roberts in the Walsall goal.
Sam Smith came within fractions of pulling a goal back for the U’s too, when the striker glanced a header against the post from Liam O’Neil’s clipped delivery after an excellent passing move for United on the half an hour mark.
Mitov produced another important stop on 40 minute to keep the U’s in the contest as he pounced on Rory Holden’s bobbling attempt after the Saddlers man picked up a loose ball on the edge of the area. Alfie Bates fired fractions wide too as the U’s rode their luck heading into half time.
Jack Roles was introduced by Colin Calderwood at the break and the Spurs loanee was straight into the thick of the action, picking up possession and curling a shot goalward from 20 yards which Roberts got fingertips on to push wide.
The tempo was far better generally from the U’s though with Roles at the heart of their quick passing play as the game opened up heading into the hour mark.
Leon Davies was forced to leave the field on 58 minutes with a knock and was replaced by Harrison Dunk, which saw the U’s switch to a back four.
United were caught pressing men forward on 61 minutes by Caolan Lavery who darted through one on one with Mitov but was denied the chance to shoot with a superb sliding recovery challenge from Elliott Ward.
Chances were still opening up for United with 20 minutes left on the clock. George Maris had a shot blocked after Liam Roberts had spilt a cross and Greg Taylor stuck a half volley sweetly but it was always curling away from the target.
Harvey Knibbs was picked out by Dan Jones in the centre of the Walsall area, but he too couldn’t squirm a shot through Saddlers legs to get United within touching distance on the scoreboard.
With the game stretched United were still vulnerable to Walsall’s ventures forward and Dimitar Mitov produced a stunner of a save on 72 minutes, throwing his right glove at a ferocious snapshot from McDonald.
George Taft missed a guilt-edged opportunity eight minutes from time when the centre back ghosted through unmarked on to the end of a Roles free kick but mis-timed a volley which was easy for the hosts to scurry away.
Jordan Norville-Williams came on to make his League debut for United in the closing stages.
Knibbs eventually scored for United in stoppage time, slamming home on the end of a head back across from his strike partner Sam Smith. However despite an improved second half performance and a high octane finish, the U’s weren’t able to pull themselves back level in the fixture.
Walsall: Roberts, Sadler, Clarke, Kinella, Lavery (Gaffney, 82 mins), Gordon (Adebayo, 87 mins), Holden, Bates, Cokerill-Mollett, Facey, McDonald
Cambridge United: Mitov, Davies (Dunk, 58 mins), Taylor, Ward, Taft (Norville-Williams, 88 mins), Jones, O’Neil, Lewis (Roles, 45 mins), Maris, Knibbs, Smith
Attendance: 5,429 (545)