Cambridge United recorded a fourth consecutive Sky Bet League One win at the Abbey Stadium with a commendable 2-0 victory over Plymouth Argyle...
A devastating first-half from the U’s saw Sam Smith chip home his 15th goal of the season and Jack Lankester open his account. The character was matched after the break as the hosts looked excellent value for maximum points as their league ranking continues to prove fruitful.
Head Coach Mark Bonner shuffled his pack by making three changes to the side that picked up a resilient win against Accrington Stanley three days earlier. Slight knocks within the XI paved the way for Liam O’Neil and Jack Lankester to return to the fold, whereas Liam Bennett made his first league start. Shilow Tracey made for a welcoming addition to the bench after recovering from an injury picked up in early-December and Saleem Akanbi’s impressive campaign for the U18’s was rewarded.
Heading into the encounter under the floodlights, the U’s essentially had very little to fear after more than stabilising themselves as part of the mid-table pack thanks to a commendable form of two losses in their last nine league games. A testing clash awaited against play-off occupying Plymouth, whose stubborn system has formed a well-drilled side blessed with energy and attacking prowess – scoring in 15 consecutive games and seeking a fifth win in a row.
United kickstarted the clash in rampant fashion by drawing first blood after just 5 minutes. A long ball from Bennett evaded the Pilgrims defence, looping into the path of Smith who beat a racing Michael Cooper and showed composure by lobbing the ball into an empty net for his third goal in successive games.
Chomping at the bit, the U’s went agonisingly close to extending their lead seconds later when Cooper kept out Smith’s attempt, forcing the ball to be recycled around the six-yard box before Lankester curled an audacious shot that the goalkeeper pawed immensely.
Although the clear cut chances dried up, the hosts continued to camp their opposite number in their own half, forcing slight defensive mishaps thanks to their tenacious approach. When Steven Schumacher’s men did make forays into a dangerous position, they were continuously denied by no-nonsense defending from United’s centre-backs.
The Pilgrims were carved open on the 27th minute when James Brophy beat his man and drilled a through ball to Smith who marauded forwards in a one-on-one position but, due to severe pressure from James Bolton, the top scorer was off balance and struck towards an imposing Cooper.
After 36 minutes, Plymouth conjured up a scare when Conor Grant’s sharp delivery down the left was pinpoint for Niall Ennis, but the striker got his angles wrong. Ultimately, the U’s were soaking up pressure well and looked threatening on the break – a combination which had been devastating.
The advantage was deservedly increased on the 41st minute, perhaps under controversial circumstances, when Grant was barged off the ball from Lankester. Despite the protests, the summer signing was already wheeling away after he poked home with assurance from 10 yards.
On the stroke of half-time, sublime link-up from Lankester and Smith resulted in the latter nestling home with an audacious shot from the outside of his boot – frustratingly, the ticket to dreamland was ruled out for offside. Nonetheless, it had culminated arguably their best first-half of football all season.
Three minutes after the break, Smith was released again and in industrious fashion raced towards the box but Bolton got a foot in and Cooper cleared up the danger with a diving save – it was just the start Bonner would have stressed.
A dangerous cross from Brophy on the 52nd minute created pinball in the six-yard box, resulting in Sam Sherring stabbing towards goal which Macaulay Gillesphey cleared in the nick of time with a critical block.
Understandably, the Pilgrims needed to go gung ho to bring back a point or three to Devon, unleashing double-digit goalscorer in Ryan Hardie. But as the clock ticked past its hour mark, there was no breaching the U’s who remained firm and kept ensuring the lead didn’t turn slender.
On the 75th minute, the inspired Paul Digby marshalled a mighty scramble in the box as Steven Sessegnon powered towards goal and Hardie battled to it.
Ennis provided a test on 83 with an acrobatic attempt - although it wasn’t too fierce, a deflection looped it towards the roof of the net. The resulting inswinging corner from Adam Randell was floating in but Dimitar Mitov leaped to place it over the crossbar.
Tracey applied the afterburners on the 88th minute – a rampaging run down the left caused havoc, before he tapped towards goal but Cooper denied it.
Ultimately, the icing was already on top of the cake. A stubborn, yet free-flowing performance, resulted in three thoroughly-deserved points as United retained their impressive feat of not losing a league game after taking the lead - coconuts beckoned.
The U’s hit the road again on Saturday (26th February) when they take on play-off chasing Oxford United at the Kassam Stadium. Be sure to back the boys in their hunt for a third success on the bounce.
Cambridge United: Mitov, Williams, Okedina, Sherring, Bennett (Dunk, 84), Digby, O’Neil (Worman, 67), Lankester (Tracey, 78), May, Brophy, Smith
Subs Not Used: Mannion, Tolaj, Akanbi
Goalscorers: Smith (5), Lankester (41)
Bookings: Okedina, Williams
Plymouth Argyle: Cooper, Wilson, Bolton (Garrick, 79), Gillesphey, Broom (Sessegnon, 67), Camara, Randell, Mayor, Grant, Ennis, Jephcott (Hardie, 55)
Subs Not Used: Burton, Houghton, Law, Crichlow
Referee: Robert Madley
Attendance: 5286 (901 away fans)
Man of the Match: Bennett