First beat third tonight at the Kassam Stadium as a Marc Richards penalty gave Northampton Town a 1-0 win. Richards' second-half spot kick proved decisive in a fiercely competitive encounter in front of close to 10,000 fans.
It was immediately obvious that these were two good sides. United made a terrific start, pouring forward from kick off and Danny Hylton
forcing visiting keeper Adam Smith into a save from his header after just 50 seconds. However the in-form Cobblers soaked that up and started to look like the quality side they undoubtedly are.
United had another great chance on 18 after a flowing move full of intricate passes ended with Jordan Bowery
firing over the top from eight yards out. Bowery, chosen up top after his goal as a sub at Morecambe on Saturday, looked powerful and direct but Northampton's well-disciplined back line stood firm and repelled those early forays, allowing their side to start to come into the game.
The Cobblers had a James Collins effort well saved by Benji Buchel
after 20 minutes but were mostly forced to play in front of the United back line, with John Lundstram
and Liam Sercombe
working ferociously in midfield to snuff out danger at source. Collins stabbed a shot over the top on 29, a clever Kemar Roofe
flick ended with a shot across goal on 31, Zander Diamond nodded over at the other end, but otherwise the two sides cancelled each other out in the closest of halves.
The nearest either side came before the break was on 44 when 17-goal top scorer Richards twisted a header towards the top corner and Buchel just managed to tip it over the bar at full stretch. There was plenty to talk about at the break though after three or four strong challenges and plenty of outraged pushing and shoving on both sides.
There were two more close shaves inside the first five minutes of the second half. Collins forced Buchel into a good save from a header and then Jon-Joe O’Toole slammed a rising effort against the bar 30 seconds later as the Cobblers started the second half strongly.
United looked to have weathered that and the game was evenly matched when the Cobblers took the lead on the hour under controversial circumstances. Richards was beyond the home defence when he flicked a long ball back from close to the deadball line. Johnny Mullins
was closing in on the striker and as the ball reared up it struck his arm, albeit glued to his side. There was little chance of avoiding it at such close range, but ref Keith Hill instantly pointed to the spot and Richards blasted the penalty into the roof of the net to make it 1-0.
Roared on by close to 2,000 travelling fans, Northampton had been hard enough to break down without that goal advantage, but United came back strongly and might have been level when Chris Maguire
found enough room to fire in a shot that struck the left-hand post with Smith stranded. Bowery nodded a tame effort at Smith on 70 and the perceived injustice of the penalty seemed to be spurring United on. Hylton set up Sercombe for a 72nd-minute shot that rolled wide when it should have been on target, Lundstram sent two efforts over the top, Sercombe had two further efforts almost find the equaliser but in truth too few efforts caused Smith any real problems.
Northampton were now happy to play on the break, inviting the U's to find a way through them. Callum O'Dowda
and Zeli Ismail were thrown on to try and unpick the lock, but Northampton's success this season is built on very solid foundations and they saw the game out in the most professional of manners.
United stay six points clear of fourth place, so no damage done there. The gap to top though has grown to 12 and the Cobblers look to have one foot in League One already.
The U's will lick their wounds and look to make amends against Accrington at home on Saturday. See you there.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures Steve Daniels stats by Opta
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