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Sunday, 20 April 2014

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Carlisle Utd relief as Swindon striker misses last-minute sitter

Carlisle United 0 Swindon Town 0: Brunton Park’s occupants were dispatched into a parallel universe on Saturday: one where Vincent Pericard plays in red, not blue; where Carlisle United are pleasingly obdurate when their own creativity deserts them and where League One’s most dynamic penalty-box assassin flunks last-minute sitters.

Carlisle Utd action photo
Lubo Michalik is challenged by Vincent Pericard

Either that, or a confused impostor stole Charlie Austin’s shirt at the moment the Swindon Town striker took aim at United’s target in the closing seconds and booted the ball into the Waterworks End.

This was a reprieve from the deluxe menu. So much pre-match newsprint was gobbled up by Pericard’s return and the implications of Ian Harte’s departure from Carlisle that there was always a strong possibility Austin would sidestep the hype and poach a goal that would upset United’s state of well-being.

Last season, the former non-league marksman twice finished off the Blues in tightish games, on his way to 20 goals in his maiden professional campaign. The way he botched Saturday’s opportunity to inflict a first league defeat on Greg Abbott’s new team will have the young striker viewing the highlights through a gate of fingers.

“In the end, we relied on one player having an off day in front of goal,” said Abbott who, like everyone else in the 5,689 audience, held his breath and anticipated the swelling net once a poorly-defended ball from the left found its way to Austin’s right boot in the 92nd minute.

Generous interpretations of his ballooning miss say he was undone by a bobble at the moment of truth, reviving memories of similar clanger in last May’s play-off final against Millwall.

A more clinical assessment is that the 20-year-old’s conviction deserted him when he ought to have put Carlisle away.

“If that’s a lucky point, I’m a lucky manager and I’ll take that,” added Abbott, who marked his players down in the areas of ball-retention and delivery from wide positions, although any gloom was kept at bay by the way United had soaked all their efforts in honest sweat in order to leap up a place to second in the table.

Austin remains in Swindon’s scarlet jersey despite a deadline-day bid from Millwall, which incited their manager Danny Wilson into a diatribe about agents and clubs who make mischief in the market via the media. While Wilson was waging war on middle-men, Abbott was addressing the loss of Harte to Reading by summoning Lubo Michalik across the Pennines from Leeds.

Early conclusions: Michalik, the giant Slovakian, is the sort of meat-and-potatoes centre-half who will impress in juddering collisions with strikers like Pericard, the former United line-leader who earned a generous ripple from home fans when he appeared for Swindon’s warm up but had minimal impact on proceedings here.

Against more nimble-footed opponents, Michalik appears less certain, but at least the 27-year-old showed a pleasing keenness to correct his own mistakes, such was the case in the 73rd minute, when he was outfoxed on the touchline by Jon-Paul McGovern but then charged back to deny the Robins’ midfielder with a wholehearted block a few moments later.

The chances of Pericard haunting United on his Brunton Park comeback looked slim from the moment Michalik got to work on the Frenchman in the early stages of this tight tussle. On Saturday Pericard looked more wooden in an orthodox twin-striker system than he did during his days with Carlisle, when on a weekly basis he would park his presence at the front of Abbott’s team and allow an extra midfielder to race beyond him, profiting from his flicks and nudges.

Generally, it was a day of few pyrotechnics, with United appearing the crisper team in the first half, Swindon – who noticeably matched up to the Blues with their midfield shape – rising after the break but neither team posing sufficient goalscoring threat, until Austin’s dramatic howler. Carlisle most impressed with their energy in forcing anxious clearances and mistakes out of Wilson’s backline, one of which forced a first-minute corner from which Michalik almost profited.

Many more such deliveries would curve into Swindon’s box over the course of the afternoon; mostly well-aimed from James Berrett, but none of which received convincing treatment from Carlisle’s men in the box. Otherwise, gaps were tough to find. And when Francois Zoko found one – sprinting onto a James Chester ball from the back which Craig Curran dummied – the Ivorian was denied by a superb sliding block from Kevin Amankwaah.

Upfield, Austin pulled a decent chance wide from the right of the area, and then McGovern belted a volley narrowly off-target after Pericard nodded down a Callum Kennedy cross. United’s appetite ensured a spirited reply, with Zoko picking Amankwaah’s pocket and supplying Curran for a blocked drive, but little else arose from a congested game, where the ball pinged around the midfield areas without a great deal of style. Early in the second half, Adam Collin clutched a mediocre volley from Pericard, and then gobbled up a header from Austin.

At the other end, David Lucas in the Swindon goal extended himself impressively to keep out a Gary Madine cross which Sean Morrison so nearly deflected into his own net. Then, with Pericard withdrawn for David Ball and Abbott’s other loan signing, Ben Marshall, introduced at Zoko’s expense, McGovern floated a tempting ball to the back stick which evaded the arriving Austin by millimetres.

Marshall slid a half-chance just wide during a spasm of Carlisle pressure, before Michalik intervened to clear when Ball had lobbed Adam Collin following an Austin header. We then witnessed more token jousting before Swindon’s likeliest scorer granted the Blues a pardon at the death.

Eyes were out on stalks when Town’s number 32 inadvertently preserved Carlisle’s unbeaten start to this League One season, but Abbott was certainly entitled to say: “Sometimes for sheer honesty, hard work and guts, you get something.

“If anyone deserved to win, it was probably Swindon, but we grafted and we didn’t roll over.

“We might have lost that game last season. I will take that point with brass knobs on.” And give thanks, presumably, for a rare day when Charlie Austin mislaid his polish.

ADAM COLLIN - Was alert when he needed to be but this was one of the keeper’s quietest afternoons in recent memory.

FRANK SIMEK - Has yet to put a foot wrong defensively, the American’s attacking forays brought mixed results.

SEAN MCDAID - Swindon got some joy down the right, but McDaid tackled enthusiastic-ally and tried to put some urgency into United’s play.

JAMES CHESTER - Outstanding at times, the Man Utd prospect continues to impress with his ability to anticipate danger.

LUBO MICHALIK - A decent debut from the Slovakian, who often outmuscled Pericard and atoned for a couple of mistakes.

PAUL THIRLWELL - United’s captain used the ball well in a congested midfield battle.

TOM TAIWO - Battled hard without being outstanding, Carlisle needed his energy in the middle of the park.

JAMES BERRETT - Impressive in the first half and deserved better reward from a string of decent set-piece deliveries.

FRANCOIS ZOKO - Escaped Swindon’s shackles a couple of times and always looked to be positive, but was monitored closely.

CRAIG CURRAN - As in previous games, the ex-Tranmere man worked furiously hard for the cause without a clinical end product.

GARY MADINE 0 Few chances to add to tally, Madine linked play tidily and competed throughout.

Subs: Ben Marshall (for Zoko 65) - Some pacy bursts; Matty Robson (for Taiwo 78) - Limited impact; Not used: Tony Caig, Peter Murphy, Graham Kavanagh, Jason Price, Tony Kane.

Swindon: Lucas, Amankwaah, Kennedy (Sheehan 54), Cuthbert, Morrison, Douglas, Timlin (O’Brien 73), Ferry, McGovern, Pericard (Ball 64), Austin. Not used: Smith, Prutton, Jean-Francois, Dossevi.

Ref: Nigel Miller (County Durham)

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