Match report for Oxford United vs Plymouth Argyle on 17 Feb 18
WIN pretty, win ugly. Whatever you do, in the record books, it is simply recorded with the letter 'W'.
Argyle's 1-0 victory at Oxford, their fifth in succesion, was a far cry from the incisive destruction of leaders Shrewsbury or the flamboyant victory against AFC Wimbledon, but was full of grit, heart, commitment and - crucially - the deciding goal.
Sonny Bradley, for the 11th time in his Argyle career, headed home and, in the second minute of first-half injury-time, the Pilgrims had the goal that would ultimately win them all three points.
It was also the goal that they defended as if it was the most precious thing in the world to them - which, for an hour and three quarters or so, it was.
A slow start to the game meant we waited ten minutes for the first real chance, and when it came, it had the potential to be another show-stopper. Graham Carey's floated cross to Antoni Sarcevic invited the volley, but the in-form midfielder did not connect precisely, and the ball sliced away.
The theme of the first half seemed to be chances alternating between the teams, and gradually getting easier, yet no-one taking their opportunity.
Joe Rothwell, comfortably Oxford's best player in the opening half an hour, got into a good position on the edge of the box, but saw his shot charged down, before Argyle went straight up the other end, and via a link-up between floating attackers Carey and Ruben Lameiras, the Irishman got beyond the Yellows' defence. His dink over the 'keeper looked like the opening goal, but the ball trickled wide, with Simon Eastwood having got a slight, but decisive, glove to it.
Todd Kane, a right-back on loan from Chelsea, was a danger when overlapping, and did so to good effect, getting beyond his wide man and sending a perfect cross to Alex Mowatt. The United midfielder had perfectly timed his run, but not his finish, as he skied over from eight yards.
It was a game with a far slower tempo compared to recent Argyle outings, and Pilgrims looked a little out of sorts, too often sinking deeper than necessary. It was fortunate that a jittery Oxford team seemed to lack confidence offensively.
There was also a flurry of Argyle passes that just did not quite reach their target, either underhit, overhit or slightly wide of their intended recipient. More often than not the right ball was being played, but with the execution often slightly below par.
With the very last chance of the half, though, Argyle got it right. A flowing, dangerous move was stemmed by Oxford, but only for a corner. Carey took it, swung the ball to the far post, and the ball sailed over the straying goalkeeper. As Eastwood went outward, Bradley looked goalward, looping a header over a crowd of bodies and into the net.
Around four seconds after the restart, it was half-time. altering the mood, as well as the tone of each manager's interval gee-up.
Shortly before the break, Rothwell had shot well over, and succombed to the injury sustained making the effort. His replacement, Ricardinho, instigated the first Oxford attack of the second half, crossing only just too high for Henry to head on goal. Before Argyle could clear Ricardinho had a shot himself, firing not far wide of Remi Matthews' far post.
Argyle replied with former Oxford man Ryan Taylor receiving Carey's clever flick inside, then driving a shot past Eastwood but on to the bar, over the barricade and into the back of a Ford Transit in the exposed end's car-park.
Just after the hour, Oxford competed their complement of substitutions, bringing on Gino van Kessel and Malachi Napa. At the same time, Argyle withdrew Lameiras in favour of Joel Grant.
Taylor went close again, beating an offside trap but being forced a little wide. His shot was blocked at the near post, but fell invitingly to Carey, who did not do a lot wrong, but saw hit effort cleared off the line by Kane.
Oxford were pinning Argyle back, with both of the latter substitutes looking lively. Van Kessel shot through a crowd, meaning Matthews had to make a sudden low save, and Argyle blocked a trio of quickfire efforts from Napa, Obika and Mowatt.
This was shades of a previous Argyle but, by the way, not a bad one. Many was the time during the promotion winning 2016-17 season that Argyle came away from home, got a lead, and protected it with their lives.
In the last throes of injury-time, Carey epitomised the Argyle ethos, working tremendously hard to win the ball back, and carry it upfield. Eventually, he was fouled, and Argyle ran the clock down satisfactorily.
Not a five-star classic, but a fifth straight win, nonetheless.
Oxford United (4-4-1-1): 1 Simon Eastwood; 19 Todd Kane, 16 Rob Dickie, 30 John Mousinho (capt), 29 Ashley Smith-Brown (36 Malachi Napa 64); 32 Isaac Buckley-Ricketts, 8 Ryan Ledson, 17 James Henry (39 Gino Van Kessel 64), 27 Alex Mowatt; 18 Joe Rothwell (21 Ricardinho 37); 9 John Obika. Substitutes (not used): 6 Aaron Martin, 13 Scott Shearer (gk), 14 Josh Ruffels, 35 Canice Carroll.
Booked: Dickie 83.
Argyle (4-3-3): 34 Remi Matthews; 22 Zak Vyner, 4 Yann Songo'o, 15 Sonny Bradley, 3 Gary Sawyer (capt, 17 Aaron Taylor-Sinclair 78); 7 Antoni Sarcevic, 24 David Fox, 6 Jamie Ness; 10 Graham Carey, 19 Ryan Taylor, 11 Ruben Lameiras (16 Joel Grant 65). Substitutes (not used): 2 Gary Miller, 8 Lionel Ainsworth, 9 Simon Church, 14 Moses Makasi, 25 Kyle Letheren (gk).
Booked: Taylor-Sinclair 86, Taylor 90.
Referee: Mark Heywood.
Attendance: 8,301 (1,802 away).