Connor Gudger’s scrambled goal three minutes from time shattered Cambridge, who had belied their lowly position by providing one of the toughest games of the season so far for Brakes, writes Paul Edwards.
Brakes seemed to struggle with the added pressure of being leaders and for long periods were unable to play in their usual confident style - a lot of which was down to Cambridge.
Striker Tunde Adewunami had a busy first 45 minutes before fading in the second half and he fired an early shot past the post.
Jack Edwards then drew a first save of the evening from City’s Enol Ordanez after latching on to Ryan Rowe’s intelligent backheel.
A dangerous cross from Joe Carden whistled across the six-yard box to safety, while skipper Jon Kaye’s turn and shot from Adewunami’s cut-back was blocked by Jamie Hood, only for the loose ball to return to the striker a couple of yards out. It seemed a toe-poke would give Cambridge the lead but James Mace had tracked back well and stabbed the ball clear before Adewunami had chance to connect.
The visitors were looking very lively and spurned another opportunity when Carden robbed Richard Taundry on half-way, racing into the box down the left before blazing his shot over the bar.
Tony Breeden was forced into two routine saves but Cambridge continued to pour forward and while Leamington were guilty of squandering possession they were also being forced into errors as those in sky blue worked tirelessly to close them down.
An offside flag denied Rowe his 13th goal of the season as he slid in to convert a mis-hit shot from Ahmed Obeng, but in patches Leamington were starting to look more like the side which had started the season so well.
Rob Thompson-Brown shot wide after a well worked move and Rowe dug a decent effort out on the turn after Taundry had won the ball back on the right wing, but Ordonez was equal to it.
The Spanish stopper could do little about Jack Edwards’ powerful header from Thompson-Brown’s left-wing free-kick, but he was rescued by the frame of the goal as the ball cannoned back off the crossbar.
Cambridge saw an effort of their own ruled out for offside before half-time, the ball striking Dean Mason on the line from Adewunami’s shot, before Hood heroically blocked two shots from right-back Ben Robinson.
Darren Pond was withdrawn as a precaution after coming off worst from a crunching challenge he made during the first half, Joe Magunda replacing him.
Ordonez parried a shot from Obeng, who struggled to get the ball out from under his feet and Rowe took a tumble as he went for the loose ball but the penalty shouts were louder from the terraces than the pitch.
Rowe saw a low curling effort saved by Ordonez, while City substitute Giovany Lopes crashed wastefully over after some neat footwork bamboozled both Hood and Mace.
Kaye blocked Mace’s goalbound header on the line from a Taundry corner kick, while Obeng saw another shot blocked and Erkan Okay bravely got in the way of a Hood effort.
The winning goal will not be up there with the strikes of the season, but it could still prove just as important.
It came about thanks to a barnstorming run from halfway by substitute Nathan Olukanmi. The Cambridge defence simply could not get the ball from him as he tore down the right before cutting the ball back into the box for Edwards to strike towards goal. Ordonez stood up well to make a good save, producing an equally fine effort to block the follow-up which was leathered in by Baker-Richardson, but Gudger was there to pick up the loose ball and ram it into the net off the unfortunate Jack Utteridge.