Oxford United went out of the Carabao Cup at the first time of asking as Cheltenham Town upset the odds to win 4-3 at Grenoble Road this evening. A penalty from Marvin Johnson and first goals from Jon Obika and Xemi Fernandez looked to have seen the U's through but two goals from Danny Wright forced the game beyond the 90 minutes before Mohamed Eisa settled it with a wonder goal in extra time.
There were four changes to the side that started with a win at Oldham on Saturday. Aaron Martin came in to the defence, Rob Hall played on the right and there were full debuts for Obika and Xemi; the Spaniard playing just behind Obika in a flexible 4-4-1-1 formation.
It was the Robins who struck first. A free kick to the left of the box was whipped in by Jordan Cranston and Mohamed Eisa dived forward to glance home from a suspiciously large area of space inside the box. To be honest, Cheltenham probably deserved their lead after the first 20 minutes, Winchester rifling another half chance over and United not really testing visiting keeper Jon Flatt.
There were encouraging signs; the strength of Obika giving United a foothold up front and eventually setting up the equaliser. Obika’s flick on 20 allowed the elusive Hall to jink past Kyle Storer, who brought him crashing down right on the edge of the box. Flatt saved Johnson’s penalty but the rebound fell kindly for the taker who drilled it firmly home to restore parity on 21 minutes.
Nine minutes later and the U’s were in front. Defender Jamie Grimes got under a long ball and could only head back tamely towards the stranded Flatt. Obika powered forward, reached the loose ball and swivelled to fire across and beyond the keeper from ten yards out for a deserved first goal for the club.
Now with their tails up, United saw Hall shoot over after 36 minutes and then had a moment to remember as Fernandez fired them further ahead; 25 yards from goal, Xemi surged forward, looked up and smashed an immaculately placed shot inside the left-hand post, leaving the keeper Flatt footed and signalling that United may just have unearthed a gem in the former Barcelona youngster.
Cheltenham rallied after the break, with Harry Pell the driving force in lifting them when he came off the bench, given a warm welcome by the away fans who thought he was set to sign for Blackpool the day before. Pell forced two good saves out of Eastwood, and Martin made an outstanding block to keep the Robins at bay before Danny Wright gave them hope by nodding home a Cranston cross from the left on 65.
It was good open stuff: Hall dancing through but unable to find a finish and Fernandez thwarted by the cojones of Will Boyle, who was barely a yard away when struck in the castanets by another venomous drive from the Spaniard. Josh Ruffels forced Flatt into a flying save after 70 minutes, there were flying tackles and proper cup football and plenty to admire in a thoroughly entertaining match.
United might have sealed things themselves but instead there was one final twist when with seconds left the Robins drew level. A dinked ball into the box, a brave challenge from Wright and suddenly from coasting through we were witnessing an extra half hour; it might not have even got that far but for two terrific blocks from United to deny their League 2 opponents a dramatic win.
Extra time saw chances at both ends. Nelson blocked from the thankfully recovered Boyle and Forster reciprocated with a sliding tackle to keep a Jack Payne effort out after six minutes. There were changes too with both sides taking advantage of the new rule permitting a further sub in extra time.
It had been a terrific game and it was decided by a goal worthy of winning any cup tie. Eisa, making the step up from Greenwich Borough seem easy, drifted in from the left and thrashed an absolutely unstoppable effort beyond even Eastwood to send the Robins through to Thursday night's draw.
There was late pressure and with three minutes left Ruffels forced a save before poking the rebound wide but, having so often been the underdogs upsetting higher league opposition, this time United found themselves beaten by a team lower than them in the pyramid for the first time since Tonbridge Angels a decade ago. That became something of a turning point for the club's fortunes and seems a world away. This was hopefully no more than a blip as the new season settles down.
Good luck to Cheltenham in the next round. United, meanwhile, look to bounce back against Portsmouth in the League this Saturday.
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Report by Chris Williams, pics by Steve Daniels, stats by OPTA