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A STIRRING second half performance was in vain as Oxford United paid for a wretched first half display which paved the way for a defeat to Burton Albion.

The visitors were dangerous on the break and raced into an early lead through Dominic Knowles.

Zeli Ismail added a second and the game could have been over before the half hour mark, but Ryan Clarke saved a penalty from Billy Kee.

United found a response after the break and quickly pulled a goal back thanks to a cool finish from Ryan Williams.

They were the better side but could not force an equaliser as James Constable hit the woodwork and David Connolly was denied by a brilliant save from Rob Lainton.

It sealed a third defeat in four games for the U's, further damaging hopes of a top three finish.

Caretaker manager Mickey Lewis made three changes to the side which started the 3-0 defeat at Rochdale a week earlier.

Tom Newey came in at left back after completing a two-game suspension, with Jake Wright moving to centre back at the expense of Michael Raynes.

Up front, Dave Kitson and James Constable replaced Alfie Potter and Connolly.

United began brightly enough, but rapidly lost control of the game.

In the tenth minute Burton broke quickly after Danny Rose scuffed a shot on the edge of the box.

The impressive Ismail held the ball up well before sliding a perfect pass which allowed Knowles to spring the offside trap and round goalkeeper Ryan Clarke to score.

The home side looked to shrug off the setback, but compared to the lively visitors they lacked ideas going forward.

Billy Kee fired just wide after more good work from Ismail, before the on-loan Wolves winger doubled the advantage himself on 26 minutes.

Again the breakthrough came on the counter-attack, as Jimmy Phillips just kept the ball in play on the left and brushed past Johnny Mullins.

Cutting in off the flank, he curled a shot which Clarke could only parry to Ismail, who confidently smashed the rebound into the roof of the net from ten yards.

It left United reeling and within a minute Phillips' trickery had tempted David Hunt into an ill-advised lunge, conceding a penalty. Kee stepped up, but Clarke dived to his left and kept out Burton's top scorer.

Kitson was quickly forced off with an injury to complete a terrible spell for United.

They spent the rest of the half tentatively probing for a way back into the game, without success.

Their best moment came from a free-kick routine which set up Hunt, whose effort was blocked.

The interval allowed them to regroup, though, and they re-emerged for the second half a different side.

A smart move across the penalty area, United's first moment of real quality, saw Connolly quickly test Lainton.

Nicky Wroe also curled a free-kick just wide, before the goal arrived seven minutes into the half.

It owed much to the vision of Connolly, who picked out Williams to run through and coolly slot past Lainton.

United were back in the game and came agonisingly close to an equaliser within four minutes.

Williams picked the ball up in his own half and ran fully 50 yards before crossing for Constable to fire a shot which hit the inside of the post and bounced up to a stranded Lainton.

United's momentum forced Burton boss Gary Rowett to put on an extra midfielder, Lee Bell, for Knowles in an effort to shore up the middle of the park.

The visitors were terrified of Williams' pace and with 15 minutes remaining the winger laid on another chance.

From the left he crossed and Constable set up Connolly, who smashed a shot which looked destined for the top corner, only to be denied by a fantastic save from Lainton.

United exerted plenty of pressure before the final whistle, particularly in six minutes of stoppage time, but they did not carve out as clear an opening as Burton hung on for a win which boosted their own promotion hopes.

Oxford Utd: Clarke, Hunt (Potter 81), Mullins, Wright, Newey, Williams, Wroe, Rose, Smalley (Rigg 87), Kitson (Connolly 30), Constable.

Unused subs: Henly, Davies, Raynes, Ruffels.

Burton: Lainton, Edwards, Sharps (Holness 71), Cansdell-Sherriff, McCrory, Ismail, Weir, Palmer, Phillips (Gray 90), Kee, Knowles (Bell 62).

Unused subs: Lyness, MacDonald, McGurk, Symes.

Referee: Andy Woolmer (Northamptonshire).

Attendance: 5,413 (265 visitors).