Oxford United went out of the EFL Cup to Championship contenders Brighton this evening but not without a fight. After battling their way back into the match when Wes Thomas
equalised a Sam Adekugbe opener, the U's gave Chris Hughton's side a real test until three goals in the last 15 minutes sent the Seagulls through, despite Dan Crowley
's late consolation.
Sometimes the game of football is all about character. With bad memories of a pre-season run-around fresh in their minds, the last thing United needed was to concede after just 67 seconds against the much-fancied Championship side. Brighton had other ideas and left-winger Adekugbe showed pace and power as he roared forward down the left wing. United chased but couldn’t close him down and he thumped a powerful effort past the startled Eastwood to make it 1-0 with barely a minute gone.
The U’s rallied but Adekugbe, Danny Hulla and Elvis Manu all had efforts go close, with at least three further efforts also adjacent but not troubling Simon Eastwood
. But somehow United hung in there. Kane Hemmings had a couple of shots deflected away and so long as there was just the one goal in it there was hope as the spirit of the side began to shine through.
After 28 minutes Joe Rothwell
, on his full debut, showed what he is capable of with a superb pass inside two defenders. Hemmings moved the ball on and got his shot away but was denied by a man on the line. Thomas, sensing a goal, had kept moving and was left to apply the finishing touch for his third of the season and all was square.
It took another good save from Eastwood as Adekugbe burst clear again just after the half hour but the U’s were back in the game now. Rothwell rifled a right-footed shot just past the post on 35 and the game was far more even. Eastwood again came to the rescue early in the second half but Thomas and Hemmings were causing plenty of problems at the other end and midfield duo Lundstram and Sercombe were working tirelessly.
Tyler Roberts, also on his full debut, showed good touches on one flank while Rothwell’s vision and passing were top class on the other. Hemmings came within a foot of a second goal with low effort that flashed the wrong side of the left post but as the game became incredibly open it was Eastwood to the rescue once again as he somehow pushed away Elvis Manu's close-range effort on 64. The duel continued on 74 with Eastwood again denying Manu by tipping his effort over the bar from ten yards but you sensed a goal was coming- it was just which end it came at.
On 76 it was Eastwood who was finally beaten when Lualua rolled across the penalty area and let fly from 25 yards. His shot was powerful and perfectly placed and Eastwood finally had to admit defeat despite his earlier heroics.
If the game had been end to end before it now went to extremes as United risked all. Had they made it 2-2 then who knows? Instead Chey Dunkley
headed back at the far post but there was nobody to apply the finishing touch, the impressive Ruffels found the energy to get into the box but couldn't beat keeper Maenpaa and when the rebound reached Lundstram 25 yards out his rising effort bounced to safety off the underside of the bar. Fine margins...
Let off the hook, Brighton immediately surged forward and when Manu once again found himself Manu-a-Mano with Eastwood he finally found a way past him with a dinked finished that made it 3-1 and sent the Seagulls through. Sub Tomer Hemed then wrapped things up with a powerful finish to make it 4-1 and leave Brighton to look out for their name in the next round despite a fine first goal from Crowley, who drifted past a challenge and curled home a beauty from outside the box to make it 2-4.
Brighton go through but they knew they had been in a terrific game of football.
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Report by Chris Williams, pictures Steve Daniels/Darrell Fisher, stats by OPTA