By Adam Tarasewicz
Playing for the second time this season against higher league opposition, United went into their match with Cheltenham hoping to avoid a repeat of the 5-1 defeat to Gillingham from late September. With the Robinesses sitting two places above Gillingham in the third tier, that might have seemed a daunting task.
Once again, Darren Marjoram stuck to a 4-2-3-1. Ahead of Webb in goal were Griffin, Rouse, Jackson, and Bennett in defence. Otten and Edgar again sat behind Stojko-Down in central midfield, with Marden continuing a run of games in the starting line-up partnering Davies on the wings, and Wiltshire up top.
Looking to kick it long and press-‘em-high, Cheltenham sought to box United in from the very start. They looked a positive, physical team who were out to cause Cambridge problems should they switch off for a second.
It did not take them long to do just that. Advancing down their left, Town caught Abbi Griffin out of position, overloading the covering Rouse. Little could be done to stop the ball being squared to an onrushing attacker who beat Lauren Webb just 5 minutes in.
For much of the first half, United appeared to struggle against Cheltenham’s fitness levels and relentlessness. Two quick, strong wingbacks played high up the pitch, forcing the U’s to retreat into a 4-4 block. Still, though, they played into their opponents’ hands somewhat by playing out from the back and dawdling when doing so.
Knocking on the door by this stage, Cheltenham’s wing back was denied by the crossbar from outside the area; their centre-back and captain Emily Owen, having stayed forward after a free-kick, knocked down a long ball to set up her teammate. Having rode out some sustained pressure, but up against a trigger-happy referee, United were undone by one of numerous free-kicks soon before half-time. Owen saw her low effort roll under a draught excluder-less wall, all the way into the far bottom corner – not United’s proudest moment.
Cambridge’s best hope lay with getting up the field quickly and keeping the ball on the floor against the visitors’ defenders – from this they started and finished the half with two good chances. Both fell to Ella Marden, who dragged her first chance agonisingly wide, and was well denied by a covering defender at the end of the half, as a low, angled ball from Davies found her far-post run.
If the first half showed the difference in quality between the leagues, the second showed United were a proper test for the away side. Within minutes Cambridge halved the deficit – Sarah Wiltshire broke through, only to round the keeper and be fouled; confidently, she added another to her tally for the season from the penalty spot.
It felt as though United had learnt how to deal with Cheltenham; they were more direct in their running and passing and carved out a couple of great chances that only lacked a finishing touch. Alas, following a 50/50 challenge for an aerial ball the referee thought he spotted something (unseen to anyone else in the ground) and awarded Cheltenham their own penalty. Owen stepped up – 3-1.
A moment when they could have folded for sure, yet United continued the momentum they had built in the second half showing their professionalism and desire to compete. A loose pass at the back was pounced upon by Wiltshire, who looked up and lobbed the keeper who was well off her line – 3-2.
As Cambridge pushed for an equaliser late in the game, Rouse flicked a header onto the roof of the net, and Stojko-Down almost embarrassed Town by chasing down a clearance, only for it to deflect narrowly wide.
In added time Cheltenham put the game to bed by opening up the U’s defence with quick passing – a tidy finish by substitute Henna Butcher beat Webb one-on-one. This left just enough time for Rouse to see a second yellow card, although she could not have been in the changing room more than a minute before the final whistle blew.
Not the result the U’s wanted but an admirable performance which showed marked improvement from the Gillingham game little over two months ago. Scoring from a penalty and a long-range effort inaccurately reflects the quality of United’s chances, and there truly was a period where a home equaliser looked the more likely outcome.
Whilst the first half was a real challenge for United’s defensive organisation, one they did not always rise to meet, they improved massively in the second half.
Naylor looked creative after she came on, and once again Sammy Edgar provided a solid anchor to the front-foot play towards the end. Ella Marden is my player of the match though; she looked lively as a ball carrier when Cambridge attacked down her wing and threatened as a presence to make a late run into the box when off the ball. She deserved a goal
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