It was a tale of missed opportunities for Sheffield Wednesday as Carlos Carvalhal’s under-strength side bowed out of the EFL Cup at the first hurdle last night.
The Owls, who reached the quarter-finals of the competition last season, looked on course to progress following Lucas Joao’s well-taken 52nd minute strike.
But Cambridge United had other ideas and took the tie into extra time thanks to a last-minute beauty from winger Piero Mingoia.
And the League Two side completed the turnaround with two minutes of extra time remaining courtesy of Luke Berry to ensure they triumphed in the first meeting between the two clubs in 18 years,
Even in defeat, Owls head coach Carvalhal could take lots of positives.
His second-string side acquitted themselves well and should have been out of sight long before Mingoia’s dramatic late intervention. They hit the woodwork twice in second half and missed a string of other chances to wrap things up.
However, Joao did issue a timely reminder of his talents. The Portugal international was sharp, led the line intelligently and his finish oozed class. He latched on to Ross Wallace’s inch perfect through ball, shrugged off his marker, cut inside and rifled a left foot shot past David Gregory.
There is plenty of competition up front at S6 but Joao showed he could have a key part to play this season.
New loan winger Will Buckley was direct and provided good width out wide.
Youngster Connor O’Grady, making his league debut, showed lots of promise at centre-back and Carvalhal also used the tie to blood fellow academy players James Murphy and George Hirst, the son of Owls legend David. As Carvalhal has always stated, he is prepared to give youth a chance, although their lack of strength in depth has, to some extent, forced his hand.
The cup is not top of Wednesday’s priority list this time around and Carvalhal made wholesale changes. Wallace was the sole survivor from the team who beat Aston Villa in their Championship opener on Sunday.
Buckley, eager to prove a point and his get his career back on track, looked lively in the early skirmishes. He fed Joao, who squared to Atdhe Nuhiu but the big striker’s effort was charged down.
Cambridge thought they had taken the lead in the ninth minute when Tom Dallison notted in Pietro Mingoia’s pinpoint centre but the centre-back’s close range finish was chalked off for off-side.
Cheered on by 1,400 plus Wednesdayites, the visitors continued to threaten and it took an excellent clearance from Sean Long to prevent Nuhiu from getting on the end of Buckley’s super cross.
Although the Owls controlled the midfield department, enjoying over 60 per cent of the possession, clear-cut chances were at a premium.
The best opportunity of a first period full of endeavour but short on quality fell to Joe Pigott. He raced on to strike partner Ben Williamson’s neat knock down only to see his low drive saved at point blank range from Wildsmith.
Wednesday struggled to break down the U’s well-organised defence, with Joao’s downward header from Wallace’s corner easily saved by David Gregory.
Wallace, deployed in an unfamiliar central role alongside Palmer, showed his class in the 39th minute, freeing Joao with a excellent pass but the Portugal international drilled his left foot shot into the side-netting from a tight angle.
Carvalhal’s men kept pushing for the opener but lacked penetration in the final third, Palmer, one of their standout performers, was denied by Gregory just before the interval to sum up their frustration.
But Wednesday stepped things up after the re-start and Carvalhal threw on Gary Hooper to beef up his forward line.
Before Joao’s well-taken strike, Hooper and Wallace combined effectively to slide in the impressive Buckley, who cut inside from the right flank before unleashing a fierce left foot piledriver which cannoned off the right hand upright and away to safety.
Joao’s goal had been coming and the Owls grew in confidence and stature. Wallace’s deflected drive drifted narrowly off target before Nuhiu, sliding in, struck the crossbar from inside the six-yard area after a peach of a cross by Palmer.
Cambridge almost made Wednesday pay for Nuhiu’s glaring miss when substitute George Maris tried his luck from long range. The midfielder’s attempt bounced awkwardly in front of Wildsmith, who fumbled it but his defence came to his rescue.
Williamson sidefooted inches over for Cambridge before Joe Wildsmith kept out Luke Berry’s volley as the U’s started to posed one or two questions of the Owls’ untried and untested backline.
And all Wednesday’s hard work was undone in added on time when Mingoia’s left foot thunderbolt went in off the post to send the contest into extra time.
Neither side gave an inch in the first period as Gregory foiled Nuhiu before Wildsmith produced a stunning save to turn away Maris’s rasping shot, with Conor Newton then blazing over.
But the U’s piled on the pressure in the second and Maris nearly sealed a come-from-behind win, shooting just wide before Owls captain Jose Semedo nearly turned in Pigott’s pull back.
In the end, it was left to Berry to have the final word.
Cambridge: MGregory; Long, Dallison, Coulson, Adams (ET 95); Mingoia, Dunne (Newton 58), Berry, Elito (Maris 58), Williamson, Pigott. Substitutes: Iron, Clark, Keane, Roberts.
Wednesday: Wildsmith; Vermijl, O’Grady, Semedo, Helan; Sougou (Hooper HT), Palmer, Wallace (Murphy 86), Buckley; Nuhiu, Joao (Hirst ET 90). Substitutes: Stobbs, Thorniley, Kean, Clare.
Attendance: 4,170 (1,405)
Referee: Keith Stroud (Hampshire)