Town exit FA Cup after narrow defeat at the Abbey
The Town were left to concentrate on the League as their run in the FA Cup was ended at the hands of Cambridge in the sole League 2 tie of the third round.
United led 2-0 thanks to goals from Robbie Simpson – after Mark Tyler had initially saved the penalty – and Ryan Donaldson.
In command, the U’s allowed the Town a way back into the game when Michael Harriman headed home from close range to halve the deficit.
The Hatters almost staged a comeback to force a replay but Cambridge held on to secure victory and a place in round four.
After the pitch had passed an early inspection, Town boss John Still made five changes to the side that drew with Portsmouth, with skipper Stephen McNulty one of those left out as the Hatters started 3-5-2 against the U’s.
Cambridge, 10 places below the Hatters in League 2, enjoyed the opening exchanges; centre-forward Tom Elliott nodding at Tyler after five minutes before curling a shot over the bar three minutes later.
Slowly the Town worked themselves back into the game and on 14 minutes Harriman’s right-wing cross was helped down by Jake Howells and Mark Cullen’s close-range effort was blocked by home goalkeeper Chris Dunn.
Cambridge continued to threat on the counter, however, and after Donaldson curled a shot into the arms of Tyler on 17 minutes, ex-Hatter Greg Taylor saw a shot from the edge of the box deflect dangerously into the goalmouth only to be cleared by the Town.
On 23 minutes the Hatters came close to going in front when Howells’ inch-perfect cross from the left found Harriman but his header at the back-post was pushed away well by Dunn.
But, four minutes after that chance, the Town fell behind. Simpson fed Donaldson with an excellent reverse pass forward but Tyler, rushing out, felled the Cambridge midfielder and referee Harrington pointed to the spot. Simpson stepped up and saw his penalty saved superbly by the fingertips of Tyler but the ball deflected onto the post and back into the path of Simpson who poked home to give the hosts the lead.
The Hatters’ attempts at restoring parity came swift. Jim Stevenson, one of the five changes, twice struck efforts over the crossbar as half-time approached and it was the hosts that went in at the break ahead.
Four minutes into the second half the Hatters came mighty close to making it 1-1. A superb move from left to right saw Harriman send a low pass across the six-yard box. Ricky Miller could not reach it but Drury did, but under pressure and on the stretch, the midfielder somehow sent the ball wide of the target with the goal gaping.
Back came Cambridge and Donaldson was a whisker away from doubling the hosts’ lead on 56 minutes when he slammed a shot into the side-netting.
On the hour, with the Town still behind, Still made a double substitution, bringing on Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu and Ross Lafayette for Cullen and Paul Connolly.
However, after Stevenson had tested Dunn’s handling on 63 minutes with a low shot from distance, the home side doubled their lead on 67 minutes. Donaldson seized possession on the half-way line and ran at the Town defence. The midfielder was allowed to continue his move forward before arrowing a fine left-foot finish into the bottom corner past the exposed Tyler.
Two goals behind the Town tried in vain to get back into the tie and with 15 minutes to go the Hatters halved the deficit when Drury’s terrific left-wing cross was nodded home by Harriman, ghosting in at the back post to score his first goal in Luton colours.
With just a goal between the sides, the Town had Tyler to thank for keeping out a shot from Simpson before Harriman almost conjured up an equaliser with 12 minutes left. His low cross flashed into the six-yard box but substitute Charlie Walker could only shoot wide on the stretch.
Harriman was on a one-man mission to haul the Hatters level and his low cross with nine minutes left was inches away from finding a team-mate, with Dunn to the rescue for the hosts.
The Hatters continued to push forward in search of an equaliser as time ticked down: Walker’s shot on the turn from the edge of the box flew over and Fraser Franks glanced a header wide in the final minute.
And despite four added minutes it was Cambridge that held onto secure a place in the fourth round.
TOWN: Tyler; Franks, Connolly (sub Ruddock 60), Wilkinson; Harriman, Howells; Drury, Smith, Stevenson; Miller (sub Walker 65), Cullen (sub Lafayette 60). Subs not used: Lacey, Rooney, Robinson, Justham.
Attendance: 7,063, including 1,380