In an era of football that’s controlled by money and greed and spoiled at the top-level by the passion-sapping VAR, Oxford United’s performance against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City on Wednesday evening reminded a few of the reasons why they fell in love with football in the first place.
On a cold and rainy evening at the Kassam Stadium, Karl Robinson’s side lit the place up with a courageous display that very nearly stunned the reigning champions of England.
Joao Cancelo broke the deadlock for the visitors with a shot that deflected off defender Elliott Moore and looped over goalkeeper Jordan Archer in the 22nd minute. A slice of luck for City in an otherwise cagey first-half.
The roof came off less than 30 seconds into the second-half, though, when Matty Taylor – a local lad on loan from Bristol City – produced a moment that he’d have dreamt off as a child; skinning Taylor Harwood-Bellis after a quick free-kick from Shandon Baptiste and blasting past Claudio Bravo to level the scores and send the fans wild.
Two breakaway goals from Raheem Sterling sent City into the semi-finals, but they were certainly made to work for it by a tremendous Oxford side.
Manchester City’s rising star Phil Foden was in a confident mood before the match, saying the team were “excited to go further” in the Carabao Cup and that he knows “what Oxford are about” after cruising past the U’s with a 3-0 win in the same competition last season.
Little did the 19-year old know, Guardiola’s side were facing a totally different proposition this season.
Last season, United only managed a single shot. A long-range attempt from Ricky Holmes was the closest the U’s came to breaking down a defence that only conceded 23 goals in the entirety of a league campaign that yielded a staggering 98 points.
This time around, they managed 18 attempts; the most Pep Guardiola has faced in a single match since taking charge of Manchester City in 2017.
13 of those shots came from inside the box and five of them were on target, which is one more attempt on goal than City managed. A remarkable feat for a side plying their trade in the third-tier of English football and a real sign of their progress in the last 12 months.
Oxford showed no signs of fear with the way they set up. Instead of sticking men behind the ball and longing for a penalty shoot-out from kick-off, they played City at their own game and actually bettered them at it for a couple of spells.
Instead of playing a defensive and conservative formation, Robinson started with two pacey wingers in Dan Agyei and Tariqe Fosu after the Liverpool-born boss took inspiration from how the speed of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah helped Jurgen Klopp’s team overcome City in November.
Make no mistake, Oxford weren’t there just to take part and meet their favourite stars, they were there to knock them out of the cup.
Perhaps a few nerves crept into the first-half performance with a couple of Oxford’s stars uncharacteristically sloppy in possession but, after what was surely an impassioned half-time speech from Robinson at the break, United took the match to their opponents in the second-half with a raucous crowd fully behind them.
Within a minute of the restart, United were level. And, although Sterling had City back in front soon after, Oxford never lost hope of a famous upset; pressing and attacking the visitors with no concern of how much they cost or the amount of international caps they have to their name.
Baptiste and Cameron Brannagan drove United on from midfield with tough-tackling Spaniard Alex Gorrin sitting in front of the back-four and mopping up any danger. Fosu and Mark Sykes – who’d come on for Agyei early in the second-half – were hurting City from the wide areas with their pace and guile.
It wasn’t just a performance fuelled by adrenaline. Oxford looked composed on the ball and confident enough to knock the ball around world-class footballers worth hundreds of millions of pounds. There were spells where the team in yellow looked every bit as good as the team in sky blue.
Chances for Rob Dickie, Sykes and substitute Jamie Mackie went begging for Oxford as they poured forward with pace and intensity in the final furlong of the match. A little bit more of a clinical touch in front of goal could have made the night even more special for Robinson’s men, but it wasn’t to be.
City’s quality eventually shone through, but the fact that Guardiola was forced to introduce Ilkay Gundogan and Gabriel Jesus from the bench and even attempt to waste time towards the end was a compliment to the home side’s display.
‘Jim would have been proud’
Oxford paid tribute to legendary former manager Jim Smith before the game with a minute’s applause and an emotional rendition of ‘One Bald Eagle’ – the nickname that Smith was affectionately known by during his successful spell with the club in the 1980s.
During Smith’s stint at Oxford, he captured the fans’ imagination with a gutsy and fearless set of players achieving back-to-back promotions from the third division to the top-flight. In United’s first home game since Smith’s passing, it was as if he’d sprinkled a little bit of the old magic from above on the team in yellow and blue.
It was a spine of Malcolm Shotton, Trevor Hebberd and John Aldridge that roared the U’s to success during Smith’s first spell in charge of the club. Now players such as Rob Dickie, Cameron Brannagan and Matty Taylor have a chance to write their names into the club’s folklore by continuing this momentum in United’s league campaign.
Robinson said that he thought Smith would have been “proud” of his former side’s performance. There’s very little doubt about that. Jim might be gone, but it’s quite evident that his legacy is living on at Oxford United.