Wednesday, 13 March 2013

MATCH REPORT: Oxford United 1-0 Barnet

It's amazing the difference a last-minute winner can make. I had been preparing to lay into the Oxford United team after another lacklustre home performance and then up pops none other than Michael Raynes with a goal deep into stoppage time to gift us with three undeserved points. As it happens, I still wasn't mightily impressed with what I saw tonight, but I would happily take that kind of performance in every game from now until the end of the season if the result is the same.

If you had asked me 20 minutes into the match, I would have had little doubt that Oxford would win the game comfortably. The yellows started excellently; looking dangerous going forward, chasing down every second ball and rarely allowing Barnet to get out of their own half. But for all that good play, we created very few clear-cut chances. A well-struck Damian Batt volley which went narrowly wide of the post was about as close as Oxford came in the first half, though James Constable should have done better when Barnet goalkeeper Graham Stack fumbled a corner, blazing over from just a few yards out.

The best chance of the half actually fell Barnet's way in what was their only meaningful attack of the first 45 minutes. A lovely through ball cut open United's defence and when Luke Gambin played the ball across the goalmouth from the byline Dani Lopez – Barnet's hat-trick hero on Saturday – somehow managed to miss it completely when the lightest of touches was all it needed to guide the ball into McCormick's gaping net.

After that Oxford's great start began to fizzle out and we allowed Barnet back into the match. If the Bees had been a better side, or perhaps just a more ambitious one, they could quite easily have imposed themselves on this Oxford team and taken the game by the scruff of the neck. As it happened, neither side looked confident enough to try and win the game and both seemed content to demonstrate to the other that they are a 'passing side' by playing the ball harmlessly across the respective back fours for most of the half.

The closest Oxford came to creating any dangerous situations was from dead-ball situations and we had several opportunities to craft a chance from corners and well-situated free-kicks. These were invariably wasted, to the increasing frustration of the crowd. But an impressively long throw-in from Scott Davies led to our final real chance of the first half and Constable managed to get a good shot away before seeing it blocked by Dave Stephens as it appeared to be rocketing towards the top corner.

The second half followed a similar pattern to the first. Oxford should have taken the lead just moments after the restart when Constable played Alfie Potter through, but he appeared to have lost his recent goalscoring magic as he blasted the ball over when one-on-one with the keeper.

Oxford faded fast after this early highlight and the game descended into an absolutely dire spectacle in freezing conditions with the home crowd growing increasingly restless. Everything was just flat from United with passes going astray, possession being surrendered cheaply and with most of the players watching on desperately hoping that one of their team-mates would step up and do something. We looked like a side that was completely out of ideas and none of the players seemed ready to accept responsibility and make something happen themselves. Barnet, for their part, couldn't believe their luck that they would be able to stroll to a draw without having to break a sweat – the idea that they might actually win the game apparently hadn't crossed their minds.

In fairness to the visitors, they did create a few half-chances on the rare occasions that they ventured forward and twice fired the ball into the side netting – each time resulting in a lengthy stoppage as ground staff tried to fix the net, which clearly hadn't been attached properly. Another sad chapter in the unfunny farce that is Oxford's tenure at Firoz Kassam's Stadium. And Barnet did actually have the ball in the net towards the end of the match when Andy Yiadom fired in from a corner, but the referee had already blown his whistle for hand ball.

The lengthy stoppages to fix the broken goal-net meant that the referee needed to add five more minutes to play, but with the match seeming destined to be a gloomy bore draw many Oxford fans decided that they would rather head for the warm comfort of their cars. Those who remained came alive to spur the side on for one final chance after Liam Davis was fouled out wide on the left. Personally, I suspected that just as we had wasted so many other free-kicks and corners throughout the match this one would be knocked deep and would be easily dealt with once again by the Barnet defence. And indeed it was hit deep, except that this time, instead of finding the head of a defender, the ball found Tom Craddock at the back post. He nodded it back across the face of goal and Michael Raynes popped up to nod it home in the fifth minute of injury time, sparking scenes of pandemonium in a sparsely populated East Stand.

Minutes later the final whistle was met with rapturous cheers from the home faithful. Had the referee chosen to blow his whistle just 90 seconds earlier it would have been met with quite a different response. But these are the narrow margins on which football matches – and sometimes entire seasons – can turn. And with United closing the gap on the play-offs to five points and having won four of our previous five games, perhaps our luck has finally turned.

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