Saturday, 7 April 2012

Late Goal Leaves Oxford Play-Off Dreams In Doubt

Oxford United lost ground on their play-off rivals with a disastrous showing at Sixfields on Good Friday. The results leaves the U’s in seventh place, with only two points separating them and Crewe Alexandra in eighth. The ever-dangerous Gillingham, the remaining side competing for a top seven finish lie a mere three points adrift of Oxford. The Kent outfit visit the Kassam next week in a pivotal promotion clash.

Oxford must raise their before then and have the even more pressing matter of high-flying and promotion bound Torquay United on Easter Monday. Against Northampton last night, Oxford were frustratingly disappointing and crashed to a potentially fatal 2-1 defeat. It was an absorbing contest which saw the home side score in both the first and final thirty seconds of the game, Peter Leven stretched off with a serious leg injury, Adam Chapman miss a penalty, Luke Guttridge only booked for a blatant stamp on Liam Davis and Michael Duberry dismissed for two yellow cards.

Once more, Chris Wilder must take a fair shame of the blame. After arguably the worst performance of the season at home to Morecambe last week, he desperately needed to shake up a rudderless side short of both confidence and quality. However, Wilder only elected to restore Duberry to the heart of the defence in place of Andy Whing, after the former Chelsea man had overcome a niggling injury. This was a costly error of judgement by Wilder and it proved decisive as, inside sixty seconds, Guttridge scampered onto a long ball from the kick off to curl a sumptuous shot into the top corner of Ryan Clarke’s net. This early goal threw the away side off guard and they resorted to the days of Ian Atkins with long balls pumped into the vague direction of lone striker Scott Rendell. The Cobblers looked the more threatening, particularly off set-pieces with the likes of Clarke Carlisle and Ben Tozer to contend with in the box. Down the left flank, Michael Jacobs, the tricky Northampton winger was giving Damian Batt a torrid time and Oxford had to rely on the steady Clarke in goal to prevent Northampton doubling their lead.

Oxford’s rhythm was then further disrupted by a shocking injury to playmaker Leven after a physical, but fair, challenge from Toni Silva. The committed utility player, Andy Whing, was sent on in place of Leven, suggesting that Oxford would now have to scrap for a victory on a night that was quickly turning into a nightmare. To be fair, Whing’s calm persona steadied the rattled away team and freed up the energetic Chapman to burst forward where possible. One such run saw Chapman bundled over in the penalty area, but Oxford appeals for a penalty were justifiably waved away by referee Mark Brown. The end of the half saw United finish the stronger, with the uncultured Cristian Montano forcing a save from American keeper Neal Kitson.

United’s late flurry in the first half was carried into the second period, as Oxford began to impose themselves under the Sixfields floodlights. The 1,631 travelling fans also started to sense an Oxford revival. This, coupled with the realisation of the bearing of this result on Oxford’s season led to a more intense atmosphere, as United’s passionate supporters roared on the re-invigorated boys in yellow.

With the vociferous backing behind them, Oxford carved out their best chance of the match when Montano’s cross was met by the onrushing Duberry, who could only direct his header straight at Kitson. But Oxford were on a roll now. Two minutes later, a deft touch by Rendell fell into the path of Montano, who pinged a shot into the corner of the goal to send the sold-out away contingent into delirium.

Oxford and the much-maligned Montano were growing in confidence and ought to have then taken the lead when Chapman was upended in the box after Montano’s cheeky back-heel. Having won the spot-kick, Chapman, a man to whom the cliché ‘wears his heart on his sleeve’ is fitting, was intent on taking it. However, he tamely fired the resulting penalty down the throat of Kitson who palmed the ball to safety.

At this crucial stage of the season or ‘squeaky bum time’ as Sir Alex Ferguson coined it, incidents such as this can define one’s season. Unfortunately, the next turning point in the enthralling encounter also went against Oxford when referee Brown only cautioned Guttridge for a cowardly stamp on ex-Cobbler Davis.

Despite these setbacks though, United continued to search for a winner as the now-incensed and fired up away support urged Oxford on. Dean Morgan, the on-loan Chesterfield winger came over to incite even more passion amongst the travelling fans, yet one couldn’t help wish that he concentrated more on his anonymous showing on the pitch.

With time running out, Oxford fashioned two opportunities. The first fell to substitute and talisman James Constable, but with the striker forced to sit on the bench and thus drained of all confidence, the ball got stuck awkwardly under his feet as he bore down on the Northampton goal. Then, a glorious Chapman cross was headed over by Montano.

As is often the case, United were left to rue these missed chances as Northampton hit them on the counter-attack when Ben Williams arrowed a fizzing shot to the left of Clarke. A dramatic end to a thrilling second half and a sucker-blow to Oxford’s promotion ambitions. To compound the misery, Duberry was then given his marching orders by the referee after he hurtled into a tackle while already on a booking.

As the hardy United faithful poured out of Sixfields, the gleeful Northampton fans chanted ‘we’ll see you all next year.’ No one could quite muster the energy to disagree.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Morecambe Deny Oxford Automatic Promotion Dream

A woeful performance at home to Morecambe on Saturday saw Oxford United miss out on a golden opportunity to cement their position in the play-offs.

Buoyed by an impressive four-match unbeaten record, which included a battling point away at play-off rivals Cheltenham Town and an emphatic 2-0 victory at Accrington Stanley’s Crown Ground, Oxford now had ambitions on a top three finish. However, the defeat to Morecambe put an abrupt end to such wishful thinking and left United precariously positioned in the play-offs once more, only three points ahead of Crewe Alexandra outside the much-coveted top seven.

That such a desperate showing should come at a pivotal moment of the season is both surprising and worrying. Morecambe are too many points adrift to mount a late play-off charge, yet throughout the encounter the Lancashire side were the hungrier, more determined and crucially, more clinical. Oxford looked lethargic and sluggish, while their customary slick passing was alarmingly wayward.

In fairness to Oxford, Morecambe’s opener, inside three minutes, came with an element of good fortune. An aimless shot from Danny Carlton, the Morecambe right-back flew in off the head of Craig Curran. Determined to make immediate amends, the U’s fashioned a chance that eventually fell to Scott Rendell to bundle home. At this stage, with the match barely five minutes underway, the crowd sensed a home victory. Instead of capitalising on Rendell’s equaliser though, United reacted into their shell, seemingly satisfied to soak up Morecambe pressure.

A large portion of the blame for such a disappointing defeat must be attributed to manager Chris Wilder. His team selection and substitutions were baffling. In particular, his decision to firstly bring in Deane Morgan and Cristian Montano on loan and then to hand them both a starting berth defied belief. Morgan was arrogantly lazy, prancing around the Kassam turf as if he were above this League 2 malarkey. Sorry to say Mr Morgan, you are not. Worse still was Montano. Released earlier in the season by Paolo Di Canio after four wretched performances for Swindon, he was caught in possession on almost every occasion he came away with the ball. As such, any United attack subsequently fizzled out due to the hapless pair of loanees on the wings.

Then, in the second half, Wilder replaced arguably Oxford’s most committed performer, Adam Chapman, for James Constable. Two things were wrong with this change: first, Chapman should have remained on the pitch. Second, Constable ought to have played from the start. This meant that Oxford switched from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 formation which left the home side even more exposed in the wide areas. Fifteen minutes later, Wilder finally ripped off the agricultural Montano for Mark Wilson, who then took up Chapman’s position albeit with less swagger and influence, leaving the United fans confused as to why Chapman had ever been replaced in the first instance.

With United lacking direction, ideas and leadership, Morecambe’s pressure eventually relented when the superb Lewis Alassandra whipped in a corner than was headed home by veteran Stuart Drummond ten minutes from the end. In the late stages, Oxford’s man of the match, Asa Hall, almost stole a point when his stinging left foot drive was saved by Barry Roche, but this would have flattered the below-par home side.

This was a bitterly frustrating afternoon that put a juddering halt to United’s promotion push. On the bright, Oxford have JP Pittman, Oli Johnson and Michael Duberry are all back in contention for Good Friday’s must-win game away at a resurgent Northampton Town.