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Oxford United pay ultimate price at Crawley
OXFORD United paid the ultimate price for conceding goals at the worst-possible times at Crawley on Saturday.
For the second week running Chris Wilder’s side were 2-0 behind within 15 minutes and gave themselves a mountain to climb.
However, they had started their ascent when James Constable’s hard work paid dividends on the half-hour.
But an uncharacteristic error from Ryan Clarke in the third minute of first-half stoppage time undid their good work.
And when you hoped that a solid start to the second half might see them cause Crawley problems, it never materialised and a fourth goal from the hosts eight minutes into it ended hopes of a comeback.
It was a massively-disappointing performance from the U’s, who had only a 20-minute spell in the first half where they were on top.
It was their fourth defeat in a row.
But while there were reasons for the previous three – a catalogue of missed chances in one, their goalkeeper sent off after ten minutes in another, and playing against a high-flying team in a division above in the third – there were not many positives to take out of this defeat.
And it means that their home game with Cheltenham next week takes on added significance.
Wilder made five changes to the side that lost 3-0 at Sheffield United in the FA Cup.
Harry Worley, Liam Davis, Danny Philliskirk, Constable and Rob Hall all started, with Asa Hall, Jonathan Franks, Deane Smalley and Simon Heslop dropping to the bench. Steve Kinniburgh did not make the 16.
Oxford actually made a very good start. Inside a minute Damian Batt tried to catch goalkeeper Scott Shearer out of position, but shot into the side-netting from 20 yards.
But for the next 20 minutes, it was one-way traffic – and all towards Clarke’s goal.
A loose ball 25 yards out was met with a belting strike from Tyrone Barnett, who drilled a left-foot effort past Clarke’s outstretched right hand in just the fourth minute.
Pablo Mills then hit the top of the bar with an overhead kick from Adam Drury’s corner, and the U’s frustration was compounded by bookings for Constable and Damian Batt for innocuous-looking fouls as referee Dean Whitestone seemed to wilt under pressure from the home bench.
In the 13th minute, United felt they should have had a free-kick midway in their half, but the official waved play on.
Batt then fouled Drury, for which he picked up his card, and from the free-kick, Drury’s delivery was met by the head of Barnett, who climbed over Constable and powered the ball past Clarke into the back of the net.
It was already a long way back for United.
Their first chance came after 19 minutes when Peter Leven’s free-kick wasn’t cleared and Constable drilled in a shot from 16 yards that Shearer saved.
Oxford were still struggling to create and Wilder took off Philliskirk and brought on Smalley.
And it worked immediately with the striker playing a part in Oxford’s goal which came out of nothing.
A long ball forward from Jake Wright saw Smalley put Kyle McFadzean under pressure and the defender could only flick the ball towards his own goal.
Constable gave chase and, with Mills unsure if his keeper was coming out, the defender checked his run, allowing Constable to nip in, and chest the ball past Shearer and tap into an empty net.
United, for the first time in the match, were on the front foot.
A surging run from Constable ended with his shot saved.
Some good play from Batt down the right saw him pull the ball back for Smalley, who fired wide from 16 yards. He probably should have done better.
But right on the stroke of half-time, Tubbs hit a shot that deflected off Wright and found its way to Drury, whose shot from the left squirmed under the body of Clarke.
It was a hammer-blow for the U’s and their impressive following of more than 1,000 fans.
Davis had to be alert to clear the danger from Barnett at the start of the second half as the hosts looked to kill Oxford off.
Wilder replaced Batt with Franks, but immediately the U’s were 4-1 behind.
Wright needlessly gave away a free-kick on the right side of the area, and Dean Howell’s effort hardly left the ground, but found the far corner of the net.
And that was that – but unfortunately for Oxford, more than 35 minutes remained – and for most of that time, Crawley were well on top.
A fine volley from Kyle McFadzean from a Drury corner was goalbound, but Clarke reacted well to tip over the bar.
Clarke then denied Josh Simpson as the hosts piled forward.
Constable fired well over after being played through by Smalley as Oxford made a rare foray towards the Crawley area.
But if a goal was to come, it was only likely to be at Clarke’s end.
United’s keeper made a fine save from Tubbs, John Akinde heading wide from the rebound.
Akinde then fluffed his lines twice more as goal No 5 came ever closer, and it was a relief to all connected with Oxford when the final whistle went.
Roll on Cheltenham...