Cambridge United advanced into the Papa John’s Trophy Round of 16 with a comfortable 2-0 victory over League One opponents Gillingham at the Abbey Stadium.
A venomous Paul Mullin penalty and a barnstorming strike from Luke Hannant in the second half during a rampant period for United was enough to separate the teams, although United’s winning margin could and probably should have been wider.
Mark Bonner made four changes to the side that fell to defeat against Oldham Athletic three days earlier, rewarding Callum Burton, Harry Darling, Leon Davies and Idris El Mizouni with starts after their impressive displays helped the U’s top the Southern Group H earlier in the competition.
Despite early defensive work to do against Steve Evans visiting side, the hosts registered the first shot of the game on the 16th minute, albeit Mullin sneakily attempted an audacious lob which went wide from 45 yards after seeing goalkeeper Joe Walsh off his line.
Harrison Dunk came inches away from opening the scoring on 21. A fast-paced piece of play down the right hand side from the aforementioned Mullin and El Mizouni was concluded in a pinpoint cross to an unmarked Dunk, who curled just high and wide from 12 yards.
Darling and Robbie Cundy were proving to be colossus’ at the heart of United’s defence during the first half an hour, looking assured on the ball and limiting physical Gills frontman John Akinde to any meaningful touches of the ball.
Greg Taylor, marshalling the midfield with aplomb, won a free kick on 36 after a strong interception. A clearance found its way to El Mizouni, whose mazy run to cut inside allowed him the space to unleash a drilled attempt from 25 yards that wasn’t too far wide of Walsh’s left post.
The Gills pressured in the dying embers of the half, and a fierce Scott Robertson strike from distance was deflected off target.
On the stroke of added time, an exquisite Mullin chip after a marauding run inside the box was met at the back post by the head of Davies, who was denied by a clearance off the line by Jack Tucker. It ensured the sides went into the break all square, with the hosts having the pick of the chances and staying resolute at the back.
The combination of Davies and Mullin proved fruitful once more on 51. The winger was released down the right hand side and scampered forwards before whipping a delightful cross into the path of an open Mullin, where the U’s top scorer couldn’t get his volley right on this occasion as it blazed over the crossbar.
In a complete carbon copy of the previous chance minutes before, yet another teasing cross from Davies was lower for Mullin, who guided it well after being under pressure but couldn’t quite gobble it past Walsh as it scraped the post.
Mullin persevered and struck the side netting after a mazy run into the Gills area shortly after the hour mark.
And eventually his reward came, whe for a second game running United were awarded a penalty, El Mizouni clipped late by Tucker, which Mullin made no mistake from 12 yards this time, piledriving into the roof of the net.
After being released by the man who had broken the deadlock, a lively El Mizouni tested the palms of Walsh from a neat attempt on 73 after cleverly twisting and turning inside the box.
United’s progression in the competition looked increasingly likely on the 79th minute. Davies played a short pass to Hannant, who picked his spot and finished off an absolute peach with his left foot from over 25 yards to increase his side’s advantage.
Former U Ryan Jackson denied the hosts from ensuring it was game over with a close-range clearance, before El Mizouni came close once more from distance with minutes left on the clock.
On the eve of injury time, more endeavour from El Mizouni yet again presented him with a chance, he dispatched a crisp shot past Walsh but was frustratingly denied on the line by Declan Drysdale.
And in added time, United’s barrage at the Gills goal presented two further chances. Substitute Harvey Knibbs and then Davies went excruciatingly close to scoring. Nonetheless, it ultimately topped off a thoroughly deserved victory for Bonner’s men.
Cambridge United: Burton, Knoyle, Cundy, Darling, Dunk, Davies, Taylor (May, 85), Digby, Hannant (Iredale, 90), El Mizouni, Mullin (Knibbs, 79)
Gillingham: Walsh, Jackson, Tucker, Drysdale, Medley, MacDonald, Robertson (McKenzie, 45), Woods, Willock, Coyle, Akinde
Bookings: Woods, Steve Evans