Wednesday, 9 January 2013

MATCH REPORT: Oxford United 3-3 Southend United

Just days after our FA Cup disappointment against Sheffield United, Oxford were knocked out of a second cup competition, bowing out of the JPT on penalties at the hands of Southend. While it is less of a shame to be out of the much maligned Trophy the manner of the defeat did hurt, coming cruelly from the penalty spot. It also, of course, means the end of our cup adventures for this season and allows us to roll out the 'concentrate on the league' cliches.

Oxford started the game poorly and it appeared clear that Southend, who had brought a surprisingly large away following for a midweek Trophy match, were more fired up for the occasion. While the hosts appeared sluggish and uncertain at the back in the opening stages the Seasiders played with all the attacking enthusiasm and drive of a real cup 'semi-final'.

It was no surprise then that it was the visitors who took the lead inside the first ten minutes - and even less of a surprise to anyone who has watched Oxford this season that it came from a set-piece. Jake Wright was harshly adjudged to have committed a foul on the edge of the area and Barry Corr rose relatively unchallenged at the back post to head in the free-kick. It was probably one of the simplest goals he will score in his career.

But we responded well to falling behind early on and soon began to force our way back into the match and just minutes later the two sides were level again. Alfie Potter did excellently to beat his man out on the right-hand side, twisting and turning to get some space and then delivering a dangerous ball across the face of goal and straight onto the head of Tom Craddock. His header was straight at the keeper, but young Ty Marsh was on hand to nod the ball in for his first senior goal - the first of many in a yellow shirt, we hope.

And before half time the scores had been reversed as Southend were caught on the break thanks to an excellent ball from Simon Heslop. His incisive pass cut straight through the centre of the field for Tom Craddock to beat the offside trap and then tap over the onrushing 'keeper. There was some confusion over whether the ball had crossed the line or not, as well as the inevitable protests from the travelling players. From where I was sat at the far end it was impossible to tell, but the word from those in a better position to see is that it definitely crossed the line.

United had done excellently to recover from falling behind early on to lead at the break, but the second half started in much the same way as the first. Southend immediately appeared to be the better side at the start of the second half, thanks in no small part to a clever tactical change from Paul Sturrock as they switched to a 5-3-2 formation. We didn't help ourselves by repeatedly wasting possession and backing off when Southend were on the ball, meaning that the Shrimpers were able to repeatedly get forward and pile on the pressure.

It was therefore unsurprising when the equaliser arrived shortly into the second half. However, it was a disappointing and sloppy goal to concede, stemming from the type of basic defensive error which we have seen cost us several times already this season. Luke O'Brien appeared to misjudge the flight of the ball as he attempted to head it back for a straightforward backpass to Ryan Clarke, but instead managed to cushion the ball down perfectly for Sean Clohessy, who gobbled up the chance and fired past the unguarded Clarke to level the scores once more in frustrating circumstances.

Things were to get worse soon after when Southend retook the lead after the Oxford defence seemed content to simply stand back and admire their guests' fancy football. After passing the ball past the static defence with ease, Corr found himself in acres of space to strike a beautiful shot which, if it had been scored by an Oxford player, we would all have been purring about right now.

In typical Oxford style we had once again thrown away a lead and were then forced to chase the game. But we were helped in our efforts by Southend who, having got their noses in front seemed content to try and sit on their lead. As a result, we were again allowed more time on the ball and though we still seemed a little uncomfortable in possession as the game drew on we began to spend increasing amounts of time in the attacking third of the field.

Rigg and Potter began to have increasing joy down the flanks, aided by Damian Batt and the retuning Liam Davis, supplying a steady stream of crosses into the danger area. But time and time again our chances were foiled by the final touch and the Southend goal somehow survived unbreached. In desperation Wilder threw on Harry Worley in the closing stages in an attempt to provide some aerial presence up front, but still the ball wouldn't go in.

But as the game began to approach that 'last chance' stage, a mishit corner somehow slipped past the first man that it had looked destined never to beat thanks to a clever flick-on from Craddock and found Rigg at the near post to level things up once again and send the match to penalties.

The game's final twist of normal time came in the dying stages as Sturrock made the remarkable decision to substitute his goalkeeper Paul Smith in anticipation of penalties. The 'keeper was understandably livid at being so humiliated and actually appeared to consider a sit-in protest at one stage before dejectedly trudging off down the tunnel pursued by the delighted jeering of the East Stand.

It's probably never possible to be completely confident when the lottery of penalties is looming (unless you're German, of course), but having already emerged victorious in two shootouts this season - once against Bournemouth back in August and then against Plymouth in the previous round - we were in good penalty-taking form. But it was Southend's substitute goalkeeper Daniel Bentley who ultimately proved to be the hero as he palmed out Alfie Potter's spot-kick to send his side through to the area final. Clarke, who is usually so good at penalties, saw three shots squirm beneath him after diving the correct way and it was this which really proved to be our undoing as Southend converted all five of their penalties.

It was a harsh way to exit the competition, especially after hauling ourselves level so late in the game, but it's no tragedy to be out of the JPT, especially with a two-legged area final against Leyton Orient awaiting the victors. Now at least we can concentrate on the real business of climbing the table in this second half of the season without having the fixture list clogged up by meaningless JPT matches.

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