An injury-time equaliser cost Wanderers maximum points but not their top-six place on an ultimately frustrating afternoon at the University of Bolton Stadium.
An outstanding Family Day crowd of over 24,000 thought they would be celebrating another vital win thanks to Declan John’s first goal of the season.
John fired Ian Evatt’s men in front after just over an hour as they looked to make it back-to-back wins over the Easter weekend to build on their Papa Johns Trophy success.
But the lack of a second goal and then conceding a stoppage time free-kick proved damaging as Cambridge struck at the death to gain a vital point for their purposes at the other end of the table.
With the workload – and injuries – mounting up, Evatt made four changes to his starting line-up to try and freshen things up and keep the Whites’ momentum going after their Good Friday win at Exeter.
Wanderers were seeking a third successive win but so too were Cambridge in an effort to give their survival fight a further boost.
With so much to play for, the U’s were certainly not just going to be welcoming guests at Wanderers’ Wembley homecoming after the Papa Johns Trophy was carried out by injured skipper Ricardo Almeida Santos before kick-off.
The visitors went close to an opening goal after 15 minutes when top scorer Sam Smith steered an effort against the post following a corner.
And with the U’s posting nearly all their blue shirts behind the ball whenever possible, there was little room for Wanderers to try and find an opening.
There was more than half an hour gone when they did unlock the Cambridge defence for the first time thanks to George Johnston’s penetrating pass.
John’s forward run got him into the penalty area but with the angle against him his low drive couldn’t beat Dimitar Mitov at his near post as George Thomason offered a possible passing alternative with a burst into the box.
With Wanderers needing to raise the tempo and their levels after the break they almost made the perfect start.
This time John and Thomason did combine and from John’s clipped cross Conor Bradley saw his header at the far post blocked as he bravely stooped to try and repeat his winner at Exeter.
John was proving a useful outlet and in an effort to turn the screw Evatt made a triple change with an hour gone as Dion Charles, Aaron Dempsey and Kieran Lee were all added to the mix.
That also energised the crowd as they willed the Whites on to find an opening goal.
And with 67 minutes gone it came.
Cambridge had been forced even deeper but Wanderers worked the ball well to create an opening for Johnston, whose shot was superbly saved by Mitov.
Johnston was poised to pounce on the rebound but John got their first to lash the ball home and trigger a wave of relief and elation around the ground.
That seemingly gave Wanderers the control they wanted, although the cushion of a second goal was evidently needed and with 10 minutes to go it so nearly came.
Morley released Charles and despite not much of the goal to aim at, Charles thought he had found the far corner with a low driver which hit the inside of a post and bounced clear.
Wanderers were going for the kill and in a crazy few seconds, Kieran Lee and the hard-working Dan N’Lundulu, twice, saw efforts blocked in front of goal.
And with Cambridge surviving that scare and still not out of the contest they mustered one last push in injury time to find an equaliser and dash Wanderers’ hopes of victory.
Jack Lankester was given the chance to fire in a free-kick from the corner of the penalty area and with Smith getting the last touch in a crowded penalty area Whites were left down but not out – hanging onto a play-off berth and with their destiny still very much in their own hands.
Wanderers: Trafford; Jones, Johnston, Mbete; Bradley, Sheehan (Morley 59), Thomason (Kachunga 68), John; Shoretire (Lee 59); Adeboyejo (N’Lundulu 68), Jerome (Charles 59). Substitutes: MJ Williams, R Williams.
Booked: Johnston, Bradley
Cambridge United: Mitov; L Bennett, Morrison, R Bennett (Ironside 86), Jones, Seddon (Dunk 69); Brophy (Lankester 69), McGrandles, Digby (Okenabirhie 86), Knibbs (Tracey 69); Smith. Substitutes: Mannion, Worman.
Referee: David Rock
Attendance: 24,377 (472 Cambridge)