Ten-man Cambridge United kicked off their 2022 Sky Bet League One pursuit with a resolute 0-0 draw over on-song Portsmouth at the Abbey Stadium...
After Sam Smith was dismissed on the hour mark, the hosts had their work cut out. Nonetheless, a gritty conclusion saw United grab a thoroughly deserved share of the spoils as they extended the gap from the relegation zone.
After a disrupted Christmas schedule, Mark Bonner felt no need to shuffle his pack too much from the U’s last outing against Rotherham United two weeks earlier. In the sole change, Ben Worman replaced Jensen Weir as the 4/2/3/1 shape was maintained. Wes Hoolahan and Liam O’Neil made welcome returns to the 18-man squad, softening the blow that Lloyd Jones and Shilow Tracey would remain on the sidelines for the foreseeable future.
Going into the encounter between the recuperated sides, United would no doubt take some heart from some gritty recent performances as they looked to replicate a similar performance level from the reverse fixture at Fratton Park. A run of three wins in five in all competitions made for a consistently sound first half of the campaign. The task at hand was an arduous one against a rejuvenated Pompey side who were on the back of nine games unbeaten, boasting four consecutive clean sheets in the process.
In a steady start to proceedings, the U’s cleared their lines when called upon and acquitted themselves well. They crafted a promising attack on the 7th minute when an excellent twist and turn deep down the right from Smith helped force a rebounded cross that fell to the path of George Williams, who drilled an attempt which Gavin Bazunu claimed.
Moments after a feisty bust-up which involved Pompey’s number 10, Marcus Harness glided around the outskirts of the box and teed up Reeco Hackett on 19 – but his first-time attempt blazed wide of the crossbar.
In response, the U’s marauded up the other end of the pitch and almost carved out the opener. An applaudable Mahlon Romeo block denied James Brophy from 12 yards after Bazunu pawed away Adam May’s ferocious attempt.
Despite the half petering out slightly, United continued to win the all-important individual battles – their physical approach causing the visitors problems. On the counter attack, they were promising, particularly down the right where they found pockets of space in numerous occasions. Finishing on the ascendency, Smith was involved again on the stroke of half-time when, from the tightest of angles, danced into the six-yard box and forced Bazunu into action.
Pompey looked the most liveliest after the break, but there was no clear-cut opportunities as a battle in the middle of the park continued to ensue. The complexity of the game changed on the hour mark when Smith, perhaps harshly, was sent off after receiving a second yellow card due to a lunge on Connor Ogilvie.
Shortly after, play was temporarily suspended after a medical emergency was identified in the Newmarket Road End. Supporters and players alike played their part to ensure a fast response to tend to the matter immediately. Our thoughts and prayers are with the supporter and their family.
After the dismissal of the U’s joint-top goalscorer, they were forced to roll their sleeves up and grind out something from a match where, up to now, they’d been great value for at least a point.
A heart-in-mouth moment was conjured up on the 85th minute when substitute Michael Jacobs picked his spot and unleashed a 25-yard piledriver which Dimitar Mitov denied astutely with a low diving save.
Nonetheless, there was plenty of endeavour from United who hunted for the breakthrough despite their disadvantage. On the stroke of stoppage time, a teasing free-kick from May eventually fell to Jack Iredale who had time to touch it down before cannoning inches wide of the right post.
With an additional 21 minutes left to play, the game was far from over. The golden chance fell with seven minutes to play when the ball fell to Ronan Curtis in a dangerous position but the Irish international blasted wide.
To a man, United played their part in securing a point and the clean sheet from a clash that required real grit and determination.
Up next, the attention switches to Saturday (8th January) as the U’s, backed by a vociferous away support, travel to St James’ Park to take on giants Newcastle United in an FA Cup Third Round tie. Be sure to grab your tickets and support the lads as they lock horns with the richest club in the world.
Cambridge United: Mitov, Williams, Okedina, Iredale, Dunk, Digby, May, Smith, Worman (Knibbs, 76), Brophy (Hoolahan, 90+18), Ironside
Subs Not Used: McKenzie-Lyle, O’Neil, Hoolahan, Weir, Lankester, Masterson
Bookings: Smith (RED), Brophy, Iredale
Portsmouth: Bazunu, Freeman (Jacobs, 75), Raggett, Ogilvie, Romeo, Williams, Morrell, Hackett (Brown, 80), Harness, Curtis, Hirst (Marquis, 90+15)
Subs Not Used: Harrison, Downing, Azeez, Bass
Bookings: Romeo, Raggett, Williams
Attendance: 6832 (1463 away fans)
Man of the Match: Paul Digby