Cambridge United retained their lead at the top of Sky Bet League Two after overcoming 10-man Morecambe 2-1 in a thrilling encounter at the Abbey Stadium.
Paul Mullin moved his tally to 29 for the campaign with a goal in each half, with penalty specialist Callum Burton’s heroics ensuring that a late Freddie Price strike for the visitors was just a consolation as the U’s ground out a fourth win on the bounce.
After finding a winning formula of late, Mark Bonner named an unchanged side for a third successive game. The U’s boasted the joint-best home record in the division going into the game, whereas the Shrimps had lost just one in six and sat five points behind the hosts, setting up an important afternoon in the race for promotion.
United started the encounter in a positive manner with some slick passing moves on display, particularly in the middle of the park between Hiram Boateng and Wes Hoolahan.
With the U’s attacking towards the newly-named ‘The Paul Mullin Stand’, it was perhaps fitting that the aforementioned record breaker bulged home the first goal of the afternoon on the 17th minute. A peach of a cross from Kyle Knoyle found a leaping Joe Ironside who forced an excellent reflex save from Kyle Letheren, only to fall to Mullin from close range who bundled home his 28th of the campaign.
The Shrimps’ defence was carved open again five minutes later when yet another sublime long ball from Jack Iredale released a scampering Mullin down the right flank. The striker picked his spot and delivered a deep cross towards Liam O’Neil at the back post who diverted a header onto the goal line and was valiantly cleared before it could trickle in.
United’s defensive resolve was tested on the half an hour mark when Carlos Mendes Gomes beat Burton to a floating cross, assisting Toumani Diagouraga whose strike from 20 yards was well blocked by the hosts’ backline.
Paul Digby orchestrated a blistering counter attack on the 37th minute, releasing an unmarked Iredale down the left. With pace to burn, the full-back raced into the penalty area and hit with precision at his near post but was denied well by Letheren. It proved the last real opportunity of the first half, with the U’s deservedly occupying the one-goal advantage. They would need to remain wary of their opponents however, who had grown into the game.
It took the hosts just seconds after the interval to stamp their authority and conjure up a chance. Mullin was found down the right and whipped in a cross to strike partner Ironside, who couldn’t divert his header on target.
Enjoying a strong spell in the final third, the Shrimps came close on 52 when a corner was met sharply by the head of captain Sam Lavelle at the front post, which went just wide of Burton’s right post.
Morecambe were reduced to 10 men two minutes later when last man Liam Gibson bundled over a scurrying Mullin who was through on goal. The resulting free kick from 20 yards was thundered with venom by Boateng but was applauding caught by Letheren.
Despite their disadvantage, Morecambe continued to test United’s backline and earned themselves a penalty on the 64th minute when Aaron Wildig was brought down on the turn by Greg Taylor. Cole Stockton stepped up and planted towards the right but Burton guessed correctly and pawed the attempt behind for a corner.
Knoyle saved his side’s skin moments later with a vital last-ditch tackle in the box to deny a scampering Mendes Gomes who was through on goal.
It was United’s turn to be awarded a penalty on the 80th minute when substitute Shilow Tracey jinked into the box and went down under a challenge. Mullin made no mistake from 12 yards, lashing into the far left to secure a brace against his former side and allow breathing space.
The Shrimps needed an immediate response and ensured a nervy finish when they clawed one back through substitute Price on the 87th minute, who stayed alert in the box to head home. It proved to be just a consolation as the U’s held firm to secure maximum points and ensure the sound of coconuts.
Cambridge United: Burton, Knoyle, Taylor, Okedina, Iredale, Digby, O’Neil (Tracey, 74), Boateng, Hoolahan (Dunk, 90+4), Ironside, Mullin (Hannant, 86)
Bookings: Taylor, Ironside, Digby, Burton
Morecambe: Letheren, Mellor (Hendrie, 57), Lavelle, Davis, Gibson, Diagouraga (Denny, 86), O’Sullivan, Pringle (Cooney, 57), Wildig, Mendes Gomes (Price, 86), Stockton (McAlinden, 74)
Bookings: Mendes Gomes, Gibson (Red), Wildig