After three straight wins and four consecutive clean sheets, the abiding question going into tonight’s game was whether we could keep the run going. In the event we did, in what proved to be a real curate’s egg of a match. We were pretty poor in the first half but scored twice, were much improved after the break but ended up rather under the cosh after Innis was sent off with about half an hour still to play. Ultimately we won because Oxford’s prettier play in the first half came with no end product, while in the second half they failed to take one of a couple of chances to get back into the game.
The rotation approach that Lee Bowyer is currently favouring was maintained, with fresh changes to the starting line-up, albeit one enforced by the absence of Doughty. The defence picked itself (with Purrington back on the bench and no place there yet for the freshly-signed Matthews), with Gunter, Innis, Famewo and Maatsen in front of Amos. Both Watson and Pratley came in, joined by Shinnie (with Saturday’s starters Forster-Caskey, Levitt and Williams among the subs), while it seemed to be three up front (or one down the middle with one either side) with Washington joining Bogle and Smyth, while surprisingly Aneke made the bench (the indications had been he would not be fit for this one). It actually turned out to be more a 4-4-2 with Smyth playing wide right, effectively replacing Doughty.
As on Saturday, when for the first 45 minutes we were lacking some muscle in midfield, in the first half tonight the midfield balance didn’t look great. We struggled to put together passes or to find space, with the long balls we hit seldom finding their target. By contrast, Oxford were efficient and moved the ball well, enjoying the lion’s share of possession, especially as we conceded a number of free kicks. Just that sometimes that doesn’t count for much, as we demonstrated by scoring twice while Amos wasn’t called into serious action (he did dive bravely to collect the ball after a fierce free kick which he couldn’t hold, while a full pitch length run from one of their guys ended with him shooting over).
Just after the half-hour there seemed no obvious danger as Gunter managed to find Shinnie. But he swivelled and played in Washington in space. He advanced into the area and calmly slotted it into the net underneath their keeper’s body. It came against the run of play, but no less welcome for that. And shortly before the break Bogle collected a throw-in and advanced only to be held back. The free kick was in a decent position on the left side, with a right-footer capable of going over the wall or around it to the far post. Shinnie went for the latter and struck it fiercely with curl on it and their keeper was again found wanting, failing to lay a glove on it.
Who cares about possession when you’re two to the good at half-time (especially when you check the league table and see we'd then gone up to 5th)? And in the first 15 minutes or so of the second half we actually played much better. Perhaps Oxford were obliged to chase the game and left more space available, but we started to actually pass the ball to each other and looked threatening, albeit with Watson getting his obligatory yellow card early in the period.
By now another goal from us would effectively seal the win but one for Oxford and it’s a completely different game. And in that period both were possible. What looked like a training ground routine from a corner saw Maatsen hit one on the volley, then for once Innis and Famewo were caught out with a ball between them and ended up giving away the free kick on the edge of the area, only for their guy to curl it over the bar.
On the hour and Oxford were starting to look rather desperate, reflected in a double substitution and a rather nasty, late cheap shot on Famewo. But Innis picked up a yellow for holding back their keeper who’d gathered from a corner. It looked like taking one for the team, but having done that you have to be a little circumspect with your next challenge – and he wasn’t, getting there just a little too late. Out came the card again and we were out of the blue down to 10 men.
Pratley dropped into the back four and Washington came deeper into midfield, but Bowyer opted to make no actual changes. And we were rattled as Oxford gained fresh heart. The should have pulled one back not long after as a cross from the right was knocked back to a guy in space, but he shot over badly. Then Gunter took a yellow card and Watson might have seen a second one (and red) when he used his arm to make an interception. Finally, with around 15 minutes of normal time left a ball into the box found their guy on the left side but his shot was well saved by Amos. For Oxford another case of if only, but that really proved to be about their last real opportunity.
In the final 10 minutes we actually created the better chances. Two Oxford defenders collided and the ball ran free for Bogle to surely take on into the box and shoot. Instead he seemed to back up and drew a cheap foul, only to shoot into the wall himself from the resulting free kick. That proved to be Bogle’s final contribution as he was replaced by Purrington, with Maatsen playing ahead of him and Washington moving back to centre-forward. It was Purrington who set Maatsen off on a good run into the box, only to fail to control the ball played back to him.
As the clock ticked down not surprisingly we were applauding the time-wasting in the corner, and especially a wonderful run out of defence by Shinnie, who seemed to take on all of the Oxford team and emerged with a free kick. Forster-Caskey came on for Washington as we went into four minutes of stoppage time, and by now Oxford’s sting had been drawn and we played out the game.
Plenty of positives to be taken again from what proved to be a gritty performance in difficult circumstances after Innis’ sending off, all of which did overshadow a rather poor first-half display, despite the goals. A number of players made major contributions to the cause – and that commitment will be needed again on Saturday as we take on Portsmouth without Watson and Innis.
Amos – 8/10. Didn’t have a lot to do but once more made the save which needed to be made and dealt with everything else.
Gunter – 8/10. Can’t remember him putting a foot wrong, even the yellow he picked up was one for the team.
Innis – 6/10. Has to be marked down for the sending off. The first yellow was a little rash but having received it he needed to be very careful and instead made a challenge which gave the ref no option but to issue a second yellow. A real pity and we will undoubtedly miss him on Saturday.
Famewo – 8/10. I’d give him man of the match tonight (probably his turn as everyone else in defence has been getting them from me). Really does look an astute bit of work getting him in. Did give away one free kick on the edge of the box but generally frustrated the Oxford forwards who found no way around him.
Maatsen – 8/10. Not going to mark down for the incident where he was left upfield and couldn’t get back to their guy who ran the length of the pitch. Otherwise he held up in the first half and might have contributed to a third goal.
Smyth – 8/10. Put in a real shift. Not everything came off but he was a threat throughout.
Watson – 7/10. OK performance but the yellow cards are becoming a standing joke and tonight he almost saw red.
Pratley – 7/10. I’m not yet convinced that he and Watson play well together as they look to occupy the same space, but stuck to the task and played his part when he moved into the back line.
Shinnie – 8/10. Really effective all-round performance, including a goal and that superb run out of defence on his own.
Washington – 7/10. Took his goal well, worked hard throughout, back into midfield, then back up front.
Bogle – 6/10. No shortage of effort, would have liked to see him take the ball on into the box and shoot when it ran through to him in the second half, instead of looking to draw a foul, but perhaps by then his legs had gone.
Subs – Purrington (7/10; decent enough effort, although should have done more with the chance that came his way); Forster-Caskey (only on for a minute or so).