Oxford United drew a blank as they ended 2016 with a scoreless draw against Walsall this afternoon. An unforgettable year petered out into a fairly forgettable final 90 minutes that shouldn't overshadow a year that has seen the U's achieve so much.
The game itself was dominated by two well-drilled defences, although inside the first 75 seconds the teams had traded shots; Scott Laird lobbing an early effort into the arms of Simon Eastwood
and Chris Maguire
curling just wide at the other end. United then had crosses fizz dangerously across the box as Marvin Johnson
willingly joined wingers Alex MacDonald
and Rob Hall
on the flanks.
Some excellent interplay on the left between Johnson and Maguire allowed the latter to get a shot away on 16 that flew over the top, Chey Dunkley
was nudged off another ball in after 25 minutes but the game had been mainly about United trying to pick the lock of a solid-looking Saddlers defence without over-committing and becoming vulnerable to the counter.
That almost paid off for the visitors when James O’Connor found himself free at the back post for a set piece on 31 that he couldn’t steer on target and Amadou Bakayoko hammered another half chance over the top five minutes later but it was United who had enjoyed the bulk of the play in the first half without carving out too many clear chances.
Much of that was down to some stubborn defending from visiting defenders O’Connor and debutant Kory Roberts, who had an excellent first game for the Saddlers. United were restricted to efforts from the edge of the box from the excellent Maguire and Ryan Ledson
, both floating harmlessly wide in the first five minutes of the second period. MacDonald and Maguire didn't catch shots truly and saw keeper Neil Etheridge comfortably catch both efforts, with Joe Edwards forcing Eastwood into a decent save at the other end between those two openings.
The longer the game went the more adventurous Walsall became. Isiah Osbourne's deflected shot hit the side netting on 73 and sub Erhun Oztumer tested Eastwood with a low effort on 77 but there wasn't one truly outstanding chance at either end until the last five minutes saw Eastwood claw a deflection away from goal after Dunkley had diverted one effort goalwards and then Oztumer forced the keeper into another good save in the 90th minute.
Walsall had the better of the second half, Oxford had the better of the first. If you'd offered most Oxford fans a draw in League 1 at this point last season they'd have happily have taken it. They have settled well at this level and go in to the new year well placed in the league, still in the FA Cup and in the latter stages of the Checkatrade Trophy.
This game may not be among the highlights of a golden year though...
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Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Steve Daniels, stats by OPTA