Exeter City fell to defeat in their final away match of 2023 as a first half penalty from Gassan Ahadme and a late dagger from Elias Kachunga sealed the three points for the hosts.
Cambridge’s first goal came from a dubious penalty as Alex Hartridge’s dangling hand was struck in the area and Ahadme dispatched from the spot. City then spent the remainder of the game chasing a goal, looking increasingly threatening towards the end of the second half before Kachunga’s counter-attacking goal confirmed the win for the hosts.
Following a hard-earned point away at Stevenage after coming back with ten men, there was a good feeling in the Grecian camp ahead of this match. The hosts, Cambridge United started this game in 16th position and five points ahead of City. Three points in this match would see City climb one place in the table and put some much-needed breathing space between the Grecians and the relegation zone.
Manager Gary Caldwell named two changes in the starting lineup, Yanic Wildschut started following his goal away at Stevenage and Harry Kite came into the starting XI, replacing the suspended Jack Aitchison. Cheick Diabate, Alex Hartridge and Pierce Sweeney kept their places at the back following an impressive performance in City’s previous fixture.
Cambridge started the game positively – the most threatening of their chances came in the fourth minute as the ball was floated into the City area and appeared to strike Hartridge’s hand. The ref blew his whistle and the less vigilant City fans feared the worst, thankfully the ref was blowing for a shove on Hartridge and City were given a free kick inside the six-yard box.
Following a City attack, Cambridge cleared and the ball fell to Diabate who did well to read its path. Diabate headed the ball down and found Dion Rankine who, after a quick one-two, found himself charging down the Cambridge fullback. After a shimmy either side, Rankine worked enough space to crack an effort low to the keeper’s left, forcing an impressive save. Shortly after, City were forced into an early substitution as Trevitt was unable to continue following a scramble in the Cambridge goal mouth.
Then, disaster struck for City. A relatively unthreatening attack for Cambridge saw a ball played into the mixer that, unbeknown to the City defender, struck Hartridge’s hand. The ref blew his whistle again and this time gave the penalty. Ahadme converted with a well-placed strike and City found themselves behind in the 17th minute.
City then, with the wind taken out of their sails, endured 20 minutes of Cambridge attack as the Grecians failed to sustain possession of the ball. Nevertheless, they weathered the storm and came out the other side with just the one-goal deficit. City slowly grew back into the game and were able to string together some promising passes on the edge of the Cambridge area, without taking anything to show for their efforts.
Despite not threatening the Cambridge defence, City became comfortable on the ball in the final five minutes of the first half. Cambridge were unable to get the ball out of their half with the likes of Tom Carroll and Reece Cole cutting the passing lanes. The first half fell quite flat as the ref’s whistle blew a close to proceedings.
City kicked off the second half and undeterred by the outcome of the first 45 minutes, played with positive intention. That being said, intention can only take a team so far as City quickly found themselves pegged back. A rare break of the high Cambridge line saw Ilmari Niskanen take advantage of Cambridge’s fullback losing his footing. Niskanen skipped past the defender and played the ball directly into the feet of Wildschut who was unable to get the ball back out of his feet and released an unconvincing effort towards goal – blocked by a U’s defender.
City then found themselves under real pressure. Several skirmishes in Vil Sinisalo’s area were just a bit of misfortune away from doubling City’s deficit. Sinisalo pulled off a wonderful save to deny a threatening strike and Diabate remained a rock at the back, winning every ball that entered his territory.
City’s second and third substitution came in the 63rd minute as Caldwell switched things up, bringing on James Scott and Sonny Cox. The substitution saw Wildschut come out to the left hand-side, who very quickly showed why that’s his natural position, charging at the Cambridge full back and playing a threatening ball into the area. Scott then had his turn on the left with a delightful double step-over running to the byline and again playing an unfruitful, yet dangerous, ball into the six-yard box.
The substitutions gave City a much-needed second wind. The away stand had a new found energy as Cox was denied from close range and City looked the more likely to score with twenty minutes remaining. Cox showed wonderful tenacity to win City a corner on the right, hustling the Cambridge fullback. The following corner then fell to the head of Cox who glanced the ball towards the back-post, just needing a City forward to tap home. With ten minutes to play, a Cole and Cox combination won City another corner, which was taken quickly out to Cole who hit an effort from 30-yards out. Cole must have hit the valve as the ball dipped and swerved but eventually went into the path of the Cambridge keeper.
Cambridge then appeared to put the nail in the coffin. As City committed men forward and looked as though they may take something from the game, Cambridge hit City on the counter. A smart Cambridge move saw Sinisalo unable to get between the ball and his goal and left Sweeney to pull off, what appeared to be, a heroic block on the line. Unfortunately, Kachunga was first to the second ball and fired the ball into an open net.
Cox then won City a free kick 30-yards out – Reece Cole territory. Cole unleashed a venomous effort, again deceiving onlookers with its flight path, but Cambridge’s keeper did well to get down to the ball and parry it away. This time, Sweeney was first to the second ball but was unable to find his footing and smashed the ball over the bar from close range.
City continued to threaten the Cambridge defence but it was simply too little too late. The referee blew his whistle one last time and the game ended Cambridge United 2 Exeter City 0.
Exeter City’s next match is at home to Wycombe Wanderers. Boxing Day, December 26th at 3pm.
Exeter City: Sinisalo, Hartridge, Trevitt (Carroll 14’), Cole, Wildschut, Niskanen, Kite, Rankine (Scott 63’), Taylor (Cox 63’), Sweeney (C), Diabate.
Unused subs: MacDonald, Jules, Aimson, Richards.
Cambridge: Stevens, Bennett, Andrew, Morrison, Brophy, Thomas, Kaikai, Okedina, Kachunga, Ahadame, Cousins.
Subs: Holden, Bennett, Lankester, May, Haunstrup, Gordon, McConnell.