United's Big Match ended in disappointment as Plymouth took all three points with three goals this afternoon. Goals from Caolan Lavery and two from Reuben Reid ended United's nine-game unbeaten run despite a fine strike from Asa Hall and a late own goal in front of over 10,000 people.
The afternoon started with fireworks, flags and thousands of fans turning the stadium yellow for Boxing Day. United, with Sean Rigg restored on the left wing in place for Josh Ruffels, needed to be wary at the start as Plymouth right winger Andres Gurrieri planted two decent efforts into the arms of Ryan Clarke from the edge of the box but Oxford then started to turn up the pressure. They began to dominate possession but found it hard to turn graft into goals.
Dave Kitson, conducting a personal battle with the two Plymouth centre halves, was at the centre of everything, closing down the nearest man and fighting for every ball, aided by the non-stop running of James Constable alongside. When Constable was fouled on the edge of the box on 25 David Hunt struck a firm free kick a foot the wrong side of the post as United looked for the opener but other than that chances were scarce as the Plymouth back line stood firm.
Having got to half time 0-0 all looked set for a storming second half but clearly nobody had told the visitors as within 27 seconds they were in front. There didn't seem too much danger as the ball bounced around 20 yards from goal. Perhaps Johnny Mullins might have cleared, perhaps United might have closed down quicker, but instead on-loan Sheffield Wednesday striker Caolan Lavery latched on to the ball and lashed in a right-footed shot which left Clarke wrong-footed and flew into the bottom right corner of the net to make it 1-0 to Plymouth.
United came back strongly straight away and within two minutes might have been level as Constable, lurking at the back post, headed up and over former United keeper Luke McCormick. The ball struck the underside of the bar and bounced down. United claimed a goal as Plymouth cleared their lines but ref Andy Davies ruled that the ball had not crossed the line.
Plymouth understandably started to take as much time out of the game as possible although they remained a threat on the break as United started to throw men forward. It took a magnificent tackle by captain Jake Wright to stop Reuben Reid on the hour as the striker bore down on Clarke's goal and that tackle proved crucial as United drew themselves level on 66.
Hall had relished the big occasion, chasing everything in midfield and knitting play together intelligently. He had already declined two invitations to shoot from distance when the ball bounced towards him 20 yards from goal. It sat up nicely and Hall strode forward to drive the ball into the right corner of the net beyond the stranded McCormick. The stadium turned yellow as the flags emerged once more and the bulk of the 10,000 crowd celebrated the equaliser.
Surely United would now have the impetus? Sadly on this occasion it didn't quite happen. Plymouth might have parked the bus and settled for a draw but instead opened up and came at United. Curtis Nelson stabbed a good chance wide and then on 81 it was 2-1 as a floated free kick struck the raised arm of Kitson and Mr Davies pointed straight to the spot. Reid, once a pre-season triallist with the U's, stepped up and fired into the top left corner as Clarke went the other way.
United were stunned and it wasn't long before they were 3-1 down and seemingly out of it. Another swift break caused problems and despite two brave blocks the ball ran to Reid once more and his blast beat two desperate defenders on the line.
The one thing you know with this United side is that they don't lie down and accept their fate and on 88 minutes they were back in it as Tom Newey drove a low cross in from the left and Neal Trotman sliced into his own net to make it 3-2.
That set up six minutes of great drama as the Yellows threw everything at it but on this occasion there was to be no late goal despite the clamour of the crowd.
Fifty/50 winning number 318421 wins £1572.50
Report by Chris Williams, Pictures by Steve Daniels, Stats by OPTA
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