A late goal from Rob Dickie sealed Oxford United's progress to the knock-out stages of the Leasing.com Trophy tonight. Anton Walkes looked to have given the visitors a late win at the Kassam Stadium but Dickie's 88th minute strike, after Matty Taylor's first-half goal, was enough to send United through along with the visitors, with a penalty shoot-out all but superfluous.
Played in near silence other than a persistent Pompey drummer beating a lone rhythm on a chilly October evening until his mate with a bell turned up, it similarly took United a little while to find their rhythm.
Lethbridge pinged an early effort wide at one end but Rob Hall did similar at the other before Taylor fired his first warning with a shot that stung the hands of keeper Alex Bass from close range on 14 minutes.
United, with the more experienced line up, began to force the pace after that, with midfield trio Alex Gorrin, Cameron Brannagan and Shandon Baptiste beginning to build a decent understanding, and after Brannagan had forced Bass into another good save, the U’s finally found a way past the keeper at the third attempt: all about the Bass*, no treble.
Taylor adds a different dimension, not just with his movement but also with his finishing, and when Baptiste slipped him clear on 21 the striker showed his clinical nature once again for his fourth goal in five appearances, a neat finish just inside the left-hand post.
He almost doubled that two minutes later, but was denied by a good save from the overworked Bass, who also gathered a 31st minute effort from Mark Sykes as United pushed forward trying to kill the game off.
Somewhat inevitably, they found themselves punished when Portsmouth levelled on 33 from their first shot on target. Right-back Andy Cannon made it with a powerful run down the right before he checked inside Josh Ruffels and curled the ball across the box. Lethbridge, just beyond the far post, gleefully fired under the exposed Eastwood for his first senior goal and all the possession counted for nothing as United were pegged back at 1-1.
They did their best to regain the lead before the break. The excellent Sykes ended a promising run with a shot that went well wide before Brannagan tested Bass yet again with a powerful drive after 40 minutes, which the keeper caught high to his left. The keeper’s best save of the half came in the last minute, when he tipped a header over from the marauding Sam Long, up from right back, but how United were only drawing at half time is anyone’s guess.
Cannon fired an early shot in the second half, but Hall and Dickie both went close for the U's as they attacked their own fans after the break before a superb flick from the ever-inventive Hall sent Sykes free once more, only for Bass to keep him out of the net with a good save after 64 minutes.
There were loud shouts for a penalty moments later when a header from Dickie left Bass floundering for once, but seemed to be blocked by a blue-shirted arm. But it wasn't one-way traffic by then and former Pompey keeper Eastwood needed to make a couple of good saves as the visitors sought the three points that would have given them a clean sweep in Group B.
Eastwood's best save came after 70 minutes, when sub Gareth Evans ran free but couldn't beat the keeper as he came out to meet him, although Bass outdid him with another spectacular dive to divert a Brannagan bullet over the bar rather than into the top corner.
The essence of the competition is to give youngsters a chance, and Fabio Lopes was given another taste of first-team action, with namesake Fabio Sole then joining him for the first time after impressing in midfield for the youth team since joining from Reading at the start of the season. Both have bright futures and were among eight players involved who have been part of the thriving Oxford United Academy at some stage. Two Fabios in one Oxford side. Who would have imagined it?
One of those, Ruffels, was clearly away at Coventry for the 'heading a corner into the net rather than heading it wide from six yards' model of Academy life but was otherwise excellent and United played well all over the park but continued to miss chances or find Bass impossible to beat; sub Dan Agyei poked a couple of presentable opportunities off target as United went for the win.
All those chances looked to have proved costly when, with six minutes left, Walkes ran away down the right and toe-poked it under the advancing Eastwood, but with time running out Dickie swivelled and smashed the ball past Bass to leave it at 2-2.
Penalties meant little, with both sides guaranteed a place in the knock-out stages and only home advantage as top club potentially at stake. For the record, Sole beat Bass in the battle of the fish, Brannagan beat Bass in the Alliteration Wars, Eastwood saved from Close, Hall made it 3-2, Sykes made it 4-3 after Ryan Williams had scored, and Bass made his best save of the night to keep Ruffels out after captain Paul Downing had kept his side in it. Walkes fired widly wide, Dan Agyei hit the bar with the bonus point at his mercy, Haunstrup made it 5-4, Long fired over the top and Portsmouth win the group with 8 points.
United still qualify. As some sides STILL refuse to acknowledge, the result is a draw and United move on to a league meeting at home to Doncaster. See you there.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Steve Daniels stats by OPTA
*Yes, I know. Low notes first half, fish puns second.