Cohen Bramall's stunning free-kick 10 minutes from time gave Colchester a 1-0 win over Exeter in their Sky Bet League Two play-off semi-final first leg.
The ex-Arsenal left-back settled a game otherwise lacking in chances at the JobServe Community Stadium, as both sides showed their rustiness after more than three months away from the pitch.
Prior to that, Bramall had probably the best other chance of note, too, with another free-kick before half-time forcing Lewis Ward to tip over his own bar.
Dean Gerken did not have a save of note to make across the 90 minutes as Exeter struggled to stretch the home defence, with Matt Jay's free-kick rustling the side netting in a rare close shave for the hosts.
The Grecians will have a second bite of the cherry, however, when they welcome Colchester to St James Park on Monday night at 5.15pm, live on Sky Sports.
Set-piece magic makes the difference
After 103 days without any first-team games, and little time back on the training ground ahead of the play-offs, there was always a good chance the first leg would struggle to get going, and so it proved.
In a first half lacking sharpness and intensity, Bramall's speculative free-kick was the closest either side came to breaking the deadlock, with Ward happy to easily tip his effort over the bar.
The break did little to improve matters, with neither goal seriously tested from the restart, although Matt Jay should have done better when he failed to connect with Nicky Law's low cross from the right, and a glancing touch may have left Gerken in trouble.
Minutes later he came a lot closer when his 25-yard free-kick from the left brushed the side netting, beating the near post by a matter of inches.
A moment of individual brilliance punctured the scrappy second 45 minutes, 10 minutes from time. Bramall, about level with the penalty spot in the right channel, attempted an audacious effort towards the near post, which a stunned Ward could only divert into the top corner of his own net.
Exeter put the pressure on in the final minutes and substitute Brennan Dickenson blasted well wide from a corner, but they will now go into Monday's return leg at St James Park knowing anything but a win will send Colchester to Wembley.
Man of the Match - Cohen Bramall
No surprises here. Bramall's moment of quality provided the difference between the two sides in a game otherwise largely lacking a spark. Aside from his goalscoring exploits he also kept one of the finest wide men in the league, Randell Williams, unusually quiet throughout.
What the managers said...
Colchester's John McGreal: "It was a tight game, there were two good teams going at it, chances were few and far between. They were two tight games in the season, but Cohen's shown the bit of quality that he's got as he has done throughout the season.
"It was edgy, you could see the boys have been off, both sets for 10-12 weeks, but you take the 1-0. Sometimes you look back at the analysis, a set-piece can win a game, and all it's done is given us an advantage, we haven't won anything at the moment."
Exeter's Matt Taylor: "We feel a draw would have been fair. It's disappointing to concede in the manner we did, we were just running out of legs towards the end. Credit to Colchester the way they kept on going and driving forwards, we just weren't quite good enough in the final third.
"[On the goal] It's tired legs, and tired minds. We don't need to take a backwards step even when we're tired, there's plenty of players on the cover, and the free-kick going in at the near post, that's disappointing, but the lads gave it everything."
The second leg is live on Sky Sports Football from 5pm on Monday, June 22. Kick-off is at 5.15pm.