Exeter City made it four home matches without defeat, but were left frustrated, after a goalless draw with Cambridge United.
After a first half without shots, City bombarded the U's in the second half but Cambridge's defence came out on top as neither side was able to break the deadlock, despite Ben Purrington almost marking hios home debut with the winning goal, but for a superb Jack Stevens save.
Manager Gary Caldwell named three changes from the away game at Blackpool last week, with Ilmari Niskanen, Yanic Wildschut, and Purrington coming into the starting XI. Purrington made his competitive home debut, starting as the left-most defender in a back five. Pierce Sweeney retained the captain’s armband for his 351st appearance for City.
The teams wasted no time in creating chances as Cambridge quickly won a corner after Zak Jules cleared the danger. The U’s created nothing of value from this corner, allowing City to counter, winning a corner of their own at the St James Road end. This corner was the first of three from City, none of which resulted in an effort that challenged Cambridge keeper, Stevens.
City continued to pile on the pressure, with all attackers creating solid chances with intricate passing and strong hold-up play. Wildschut was having a good battle against Liam Bennett on the left wing as his confidence in the defensive abilities of Purrington allowed him to freely patrol his area of the pitch.
The home fans began to grow impatient at they felt the officiating decisions were not leaning in their favour, only punctuated by a moment of confusion from all parties as the referee screened Sweeney from the ball. Two things were stealing the headlines in the opening 30 minutes: the officiating, and the impressive strength of Luke Harris in 50/50 challenges.
Danny Andrew was the first player to find himself in the book as his foul stopped Niskanen from creating a chance on the right wing, later Lyle Taylor was booked for a scuffle with Jules. The ref was not letting anything go, halting play at the lightest of touches. Despite this, even the most scrutinous of onlookers would not be able to find issue with the challenges being put in by young Harris who, as well as dazzling with his dribbling, was locking down the midfield with challenges that were sending shockwaves across EX4.
Despite solid chances being created, both teams struggled with pulling the trigger as there were no shots in the first half.
The second half quickly provided what the first couldn’t, not only one but three shots in the opening five minutes, each one more threatening than the last. The first, Wildschut’s effort, was thundered into the chest of a Cambridge defender who was sprawled out across the floor inside the box. The second, Jack Aitchison’s volley, was hit too softly to challenge the keeper as it gently dipped into his path. The third was a Sweeney freekick. As the captain stood over the ball on the edge of the area, the Big Bank silenced in anticipation. Sweeney drove the freekick low, beating the wall but not the keeper as Stevens gathered the ball at his feet.
The Cambridge defence began to frustrate City as a corner for the Grecians was played short and eventually played back to Vil Sinisalo in goal. This pass back to the keeper was met by a synchronised groan from all in attendance, although City did continue to dominate possession and the chances. City’s next chance was their closest yet as Niskanen found Sonny Cox at the near post who headed just wide.
Caldwell’s first substitution of the afternoon saw Dion Rankine replace Wildschut. Rankine contributed positively shortly after coming on, terrorising Cambridge’s left back with awe-inspiring footwork and creating several chances, including a Tom Carroll chance that was thundered over the bar.
Cambridge’s Bennett sent shivers down City supporters' spines as he appeared to tee up a cross but instead thundered the ball at the near post, forcing a reactionary save from Sinisalo who clawed the chance away.
Sinisalo’s save was matched at the other end as the game entered added time. Rankine beat his man on the wing and crossed to the back post, finding Purrington. Purrington headed strong and true towards the top corner but Stevens’ impressive dive kept the game level, and after a couple more half-chances, the final whistle blew. Both sides took a point as City were unable to break down Cambridge’s defence.
City’s next game is away at Bristol Rovers on Tuesday 23rd Jan, 19.45 kick-off.
Exeter City: Sinisalo, Purrington, Jules, Carroll, Wildschut (Rankine 65’), Niskanen (Cole 78’), Cox (Scott 87’), Harris, Sweeney (C), Harris, Sweeney, Aitchison, Diabate.
Unused Subs: MacDonald, Aimson, Kite.
Cambridge United: Stevens, Bennett, Andrew, Digby, Morrison (C), Bennett, Brophy, Kaikai, Taylor, Kachunga, Cousins.
Subs: Mannion, Okedina, Rossi, Janneh, May, Njoku, Sanderford.