Cambridge United claimed all three points in their opening game of the 2023/24 Sky Bet League One season as they defeated Oxford United 2-0 at a bumper Abbey Stadium...
The unplayable Jack Lankester got the ball rolling early on in the encounter by nestling from close range, before a delightful team move was finished off by debutant Gassan Ahadme just before the half an hour mark to hand the U’s the impetus to preserve the success with real assurance.
Heading into the campaign with a fresh and optimistic approach – and hungry to continue the momentum gained at the back end of 2022/23 – the U’s looked to chalk some early points in their quest to improve on a ranking of 20th. It was the same mantra for the visitors, who finished a point and a place above and had recruited smartly.
Mark Bonner’s first of 46 league team selections saw him name the solitary change from the XI that started in the defeat at Barnet a week earlier. After recovering from illness, Saikou Janneh returned to the fold, replacing Sullay Kaikai.
With the rain lashing down, the vibrant crowd was treated to a fast-paced start with plenty of forays into the final third. Oxford dished up the first attempt of the afternoon when Cameron Brannagan’s 30-yard free kick rifled inches over Jack Stevens’ crossbar.
United drew first blood and sparked pandemonium on the 15th minute when Janneh’s ambitious shot from the right was met by James Beadle, who got down low but could only parry towards the path of the instinctive Lankester who stabbed home from just outside the six-yard box.
Just 10 minutes later, the men in amber produced poetry in motion when Lankester’s back-heel was inch-perfect for Janneh down the left, who scampered and hugged the flank before executing a floated cross to Ahadme who leapt like a salmon and headed home.
Although the attempts on goal were limited from here, the U’s focus levels remained impeccable as they limited their opponents to very little joy and scrapped for every ball.
On the eve of the whistle, Stevens was called into action against his former club on two occasions. First, Josh McEachran tricked the wall with his free kick by squaring to Brannagan, whose piledriver from the edge of the box was superbly stopped at the left post, before Ruben Rodrigues beat a couple of men and drilled straight to the hands of the number one.
Looking to impose themselves from the get go, Liam Manning’s rearguard was tested numerous times during a five-minute flurry. On 56, Liam Bennett linked up with James Brophy down the right, with the latter attempting to pick out Ahadme with a cross, but it was too high for the loanee despite rising.
With their tails up, United tested Beadle between the sticks after the 19-year-old claimed Janneh’s header before denying Lankester’s venomous hit from 25 yards following excellent work from enforcer George Thomas.
With their two-goal cushion comfortably intact mid-way through the first half, the Head Coach handed first minutes to Jordan Cousins and Kaikai, who would provide the tenacity and energy to conclude strong.
Approaching the latter stages, Oxford began to find that space and found some creativity, with a delightful ball from Rodrigues cutting open the U’s defence and feeding Stan Mills, who took it down but was critically stopped by Stevens from inside the six-yard box.
The game was almost out of sight seconds into stoppage time when Kaikai teased with his opposing number in the middle of the park and leathered a curling attempt which was stopped by the reflexes of Beadle.
It proved the last action of yet another memorable opening day for the U’s, who to a man were committed and excellent value for their three points and clean sheet. Despite the weather, nothing could dampen the hosts’ spirits, as Coconuts echoed and the sweet joy of victory was tasted.
Attention now turns to the First Round of the Carabao Cup on Tuesday evening (8th August) when the U’s make their first ever trip to Gander Green Lane to take on League Two outfit Sutton United – be sure to back the boys.
Cambridge United: Stevens, L. Bennett, R. Bennett, Morrison, Andrew (Dunk, 81’), Digby, Thomas (Kachunga, 82’), Brophy, Lankester (Cousins, 70’), Janneh (Kaikai, 70’), Ahadme (Okenabirhie, 82’)
Subs Not Used: Mannion, Okedina
Goalscorers: Lankester (15’), Ahadme (27’)
Bookings: R. Bennett, Lankester, Janneh, Kachunga
Oxford United: Beadle, Long, Moore, Thorniley, Brown (Stevens, 79’) McEachran (McGuane, 60’), Brannagan, Goodrham (Mills, 60’), Browne (Bodin, 71’), Harris (O’Donkor, 71’), Rodrigues
Subs Not Used: Eastwood, Negru
Referee: Sunny Singh Gill
Attendance: 7435 (1469 away fans)
Man of the Match: Janneh