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Saturday, 19 April 2014

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Solid Carlisle take point from high-flying Oldham

Oldham 0 Carlile Utd 0: Anyone expecting cold reality to return to Carlisle United’s season at a stadium known locally as Ice Station Zebra had reckoned without the Blues’ ability to pull their defensive stubbornness out of the freezer for the second successive game.

Carlisle action photo
Tim Krul

Boundary Park, where even Jack Frost throws on his thermals before taking his seat, was the perfect place for Greg Abbott’s men to assemble their most satisfying rearguard effort of the season and complete 2008 in excellent heart, on the tail of the Boxing Day annihilation of Huddersfield.

Those hands thudding together in the away end weren’t just attempting to keep the icy temperatures at bay. They were bashing out some justifiable applause for the spirited performance which carried United to a merited point against a play-off chaser and, with sharper finishing, might even have led to their first away victory in the league since August.

That box has remained frustratingly unchecked since an opening-day win at Bristol Rovers, but Carlisle have sustained enough bruises since then that we are obliged to flag up a different sequence which emerged from this draw with Oldham: a second clean sheet in as many games.

It is a mark of United’s unsatisfactory second half of 2008 that they have just kept the gate bolted for two matches on the trot in League One for the first time in the current campaign. Promisingly, it may also be evidence of increased cohesion at the back for which Abbott can take credit, while also recognising the growing influence of Tim Krul between the posts.

Beyond a Lee Hughes header which he spectacularly tipped over in first-half stoppage time, Carlisle’s on-loan Newcastle goalkeeper was not obliged to summon many saves for the cameras here. Instead, the giant Dutchman’s value was visible in the way he claimed a sequence of menacing crosses, in the face of John Sheridan’s height brigade.

The fact that three of United’s four shut-outs in the league this season have occurred with Krul as the last line of defence cannot be waved away as coincidence. Carlisle have given four custodians the chance to succeed Keiren Westwood this campaign but only Krul has risen to that daunting challenge with conviction.

Not that yesterday should be recorded as a simple 90-minute exercise in Cumbrian defiance. That would discredit the attacking bursts which kept United firmly in this contest and threw up decent chances for such as Danny Graham and Cleveland Taylor. Carlisle were more threatening in enemy territory than they have been on most of their engagements away from Brunton Park this season. Even without a goal, that information should be filed away as progress.

Indeed, until the Latics’ own attacking qualities were properly displayed in the first half’s closing minutes, the theme of the opening stages was Carlisle’s general competence in the face of high-quality opponents and their ability to hustle a couple of early opportunities out of the skirmishes. After an unremarkable first 15 minutes, Taylor got in the way of an Oldham clearance and the rebound had Graham sprinting in behind the home defence, only for the striker to be foiled at the moment of truth by the sliding Reuben Hazell.

Moments later, Abbott’s men threw another flare into Oldham territory, but Taylor couldn’t attach a clean controlling touch to the excellent diagonal run which took him onto Richard Keogh’s neat lofted pass.

The feeling was that United needed to take a bigger dividend from such half-chances against a side who remain a solid bet to stay in the promotion race through to next May. For Oldham duly brightened up and a blocked drive from Hughes in the 34th minute finally heralded a sustained spell of home pressure.

With Chris Taylor at last finding his range down the left against the aggressive David Raven, Hughes ripped another shot over from the edge of the box, and then narrowly failed to profit when Keogh allowed an innocuous ball to bounce over his head.

Then came a late spasm of drama as Jeff Smith’s attempted interception merely allowed Keiran Lee and Neal Eardley to rumble towards the United target from the right; fortunately Darren Byfield’s finish from Eardley’s low cross was wastefully high.

Hughes was closer to the money with his 45th minute header, but Krul responded with an athletic tip-over. What United needed to do was acknowledge the Latics’ growing threat and then offer something more threatening at the other end to test Greg Fleming, the young goalkeeper who has walked away from the ashes of Gretna and into a League One promotion chase.

On three occasions early in the second half, they so nearly did this. First, Taylor made an inspired dart through two home defenders but failed to detect the lurking Michael Bridges. Then Bridges rolled Graham into space but the striker’s shot was blocked. Then Marc Bridge-Wilkinson played United’s top scorer in with a quick free-kick, but Graham tried to beat a man too many instead of taking a pot at goal.

Predictably, for a side occupying such heights, Oldham rebounded. Amid a strong stint of home possession, Kevin Maher had a drive deflected over, then Hughes failed to beat Krul after Keogh - in for the injured Peter Murphy - misjudged a header. Then Kelvin Lomax drilled a shot into the goalkeeper’s midriff and United hastily cleared.

The efforts of Krul and the Blues defenders in repelling a stream of Oldham corners deserves recognition, as does Abbott for the positive act of pitching Simon Hackney and Scott Dobie into the late pursuit of victory. Moments after replacing Bridges, Dobie leapt to meet Taylor’s cross but headed just wide, then shrugged off Sean Gregan and almost supplied Graham, and then glanced Hackney’s cross back to Taylor, who failed to keep his left-footed volley on target from a promising position.

Oldham kept springing back, kept dropping bombs in the United box, one of which led to an almighty scramble and a Gregan shot which flashed millimetres wide. But this was one of the days when Carlisle did not deserve to be impaled by an injury-time winner.

Instead, they are entitled to spin into 2009 with cautious hopes of continued improvement, having appeared a much more plausible side in their final two outings of this year, and having given us enough reasons to contemplate an end, at last, to all the bitterness; a genuine winter thaw.

TIM KRUL - One spectacular save from Hughes but really earned his corn with his strength under aerial bombardment.

DAVID RAVEN - Defended aggressively against the tricky Taylor and played his part in the welcome clean-sheet.

MICHAEL LIDDLE - Another capable performance from the young left-back against demanding opponents.

DANNY LIVESEY - Made some crucial clearances and interceptions and led the rearguard effort well.

RICHARD KEOGH - A couple of lapses might have cost United, but otherwise fronted up well to the Latics’ dangerous strikers on his return to the side.

GRAHAM KAVANAGH - Unspectacular display from the veteran loanee but kept United ticking over.

MARC BRIDGE-WILKINSON - Quick-thinking created good chance for Graham, a rare flash of inspiration in a tough midfield battle.

JEFF SMITH - Another decent shift from the back-in-favour winger even if the killer cross didn’t quite come.

CLEVELAND TAYLOR - Kept plugging away down the right and after a couple of telling crosses, he almost won the game for United with a late volley.

MICHAEL BRIDGES - Close to creating something on a number of occasions and linked United’s attacking intelligently, but faded in the second half.

DANNY GRAHAM - Could have done better with the half-chances that came his way, but still looks a more effective player alongside Bridges.

Subs: Simon Hackney (for Smith, 70) - a few lively bursts. 6; Scott Dobie (for Bridges, 76) - In the thick of United’s late efforts. 6; Paul Thirlwell (for Bridge-Wilkinson, 83) - Helped Blues retain possession in anxious closing stages. 6. Not used: Ben Williams, Chris Birchall.

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