United secured their first three points on the road this season as they emerged comfortable 4-0 winners over a beleaguered Harefield United side on a blustery Saturday afternoon in West London.
Director of Football Guillem Balagué was in attendance at Preston Park and he watched his side extend their winning run in the SSML Premier to three games in emphatic fashion, as they demolished their hosts with an inspired second half attacking display- a half which saw them notch all four of their goals.
The preliminary stages of the match saw neither team really gain control as the ball frequently found itself lofting through the air aimlessly, however it was the away side who began to look the more settled as the half wore on. Bullish striker Tom Cookman, who made his first start in almost two months, acted as the pivot for United attacks as he held the ball up superbly and distributed it into wide areas effectively too.
The game’s first shot came on four minutes when United skipper Lee Bilcock latched onto a loose ball on the edge of the penalty area before lashing his volley over the bar. Head CoachCristian Colás is keen to implement a flamboyant playing style in keeping with his Catalan roots and that was evident here as an intricate passing move involving progressive full back James Cooper, Adam Sartini and Cookman, culminated in the frontman fizzing a cross towards the back post which almost found Akwofei Ajeakwa.
Chances were difficult to come by in the opening period with Ajeakwa’s reluctance to pull the trigger and instead opting to attempt a reverse pass when he found space in the area, an illustration of the quality the visitors were lacking in the final third.
The game was distinctly lacking in intensity after that moment with neither side taking the initiative. But United remained defensively strong, a feature of their recent ascent in form, and were composed in possession but perhaps the creativity possessed by the absent Nick Elliotwas needed in tight encounter like this one.
Cookman is characterised by his aggression and determination and that almost made the difference midway through the half when he drove through on goal before colliding with goalkeeper Jacob Ballheimer and conceding a free kick for his exertions. He was involved again minutes later as he whipped in a half-shot half-cross from an acute angle which Ballheimer held well.
With Cookman restored to the starting lineup, top scorer Ajeakwa was shifted out to the left where he used his pace and trickery to engineer his first genuine chance of the day. He found space in a central area before unleashing a vicious drive from about twenty-five yards which flew just over the bar.
Having featured as left winger earlier in the campaign former Southend United player Kane Farrell has established himself as the club’s first choice left back, where his attacking prowess has proved an invaluable asset. He sent in several dangerous deliveries during the game which caused the home side’s defence considerable trouble and it was his corner which inadvertently found Ajeakwa at the near post. The American then turned and floated in an inviting cross but neither Bilcock or powerful defender Nyasha Sagwete could capitalise and the ball drifted out for a goal kick.
United then had several remarkable opportunities to break the deadlock in a matter of seconds. A wonderfully crafted move eventually got Cooper in behind who subsequently found Cookman in the middle. The striker swivelled before the laying the ball into Matt Cooperwhose shot was expertly stopped by the keeper. Two more efforts from Cookman and Cooper then followed before the keeper had the ball in his grasp, as the United bench looked on in disbelief that they hadn’t opened the scoring.
Despite genuine chances being at a premium United had still enjoyed enough dominance in the match to justify going ahead before the break, but they almost gifted the ‘Hares’ an opener when a cross field ball was almost ignominiously diverted into his own net by Farrell with Joachim Martos stranded. The Spanish keeper recovered though to palm the ball of his line and out for a corner to save Farrell’s blushes.
After a first half of limited goalscoring opportunities and an overall lack of quality in forward areas, the start United made to the second half was scintillating. The first goal came just four minutes into the second period as Farrell aimed for the right net this time, latching onto James Cooper’s clipped ball to the back post to head home. The visitors showed no sign of relenting as they doubled their lead minutes later through the returning Ollie Peters, who nodded Adam Drakulić’s floated cross past the despairing keeper.
United were keen to press home their advantage and continued to pepper the ‘Hares’ goal with a short corner routine between Drakulić and Matt Cooper, culminating in the latter firing his shot over the bar. This came after Sartini’s deflected shot almost found Ajeakwa at the far post before the defender intervened.
The intensity with which United started the second half was palpable so there was inevitably going to be a drop and it came roughly twenty minutes in. Harefield began to pursue a route back into the game to avoid a seventh straight defeat and with United slackening the game became rather frantic. Gradually the home side became far more assured in possession but lacked the necessary guile to unlock United’s resolute defence.
Scott Batchelor was then introduced in place of Ajeakwa as the away side set about preserving their two goal lead by regaining control of proceedings. Batchelor almost made an instant impact as his shot from about ten yards out was well stopped by the keeper, following a surging run by Cookman in from the right flank. The hosts offered a rare attacking contribution soon after as Steve Green scuffed his shot from the edge of the area harmlessly into Martos’ gloves.
Normal service was quickly resumed, however, as Sartini cut in from the left hand side before sweeping his shot into the bottom corner at the near post to surely clinch victory United. That goal spurred Colás’ men on and they seized control of the match as it entered the final fifteen minutes or so.
Drakulić almost added to the scoreline when he found space on the left hand side of the box, but his attempt at a placed shot was too close to the keeper and he made the save comfortably. Ashley Grinham then replaced Cookman before Drakulić completed the scoring as he lashed his shot off the underside of the bar after composing himself in the area.
United appeared to have extended their lead even further when Farrell got in behind on the overlap before his shot struck the post then rebounded off the keeper and seemed roll past the goal line, only for the referee to dubiously not award the goal.
A third consecutive win and a convincing one at that as United continue to show signs of progression. Even if the opposition were rather passive and uninspiring, the football the boys exhibited was exceptional at times and the manner in which they dismantled their hosts in that second half was ruthless. Hopefully they can transfer their steadily improving league form into their rescheduled North Beds Charity Cup tie with Evo-Stik League Southern Division One Central side Bedford Town on Tuesday night at Second Meadow, KO 7.45pm.