Gary Waddock's first home game in charge of Oxford United ended in defeat this afternoon as Fleetwood underlined their promotion challenge with a 2-0 win. Goals from David Ball and Antoni Sarcevic sealed an important win for Graham Alexander's side as United's play-off hopes were dealt a blow.
There was a change of shape as well as emphasis as Waddock took charge at the Kassam Stadium for the first time Rather than the 4-4-2 shape of recent weeks, the U's moved to a more narrow 4-2-3-1 shape with David Connolly flitting between attack and the front of the three just behind striker Deane Smalley. With Scott Davies seeing plenty of the ball and both sides passing the ball swiftly it was an attractive game to watch.
The first half hour was very even and the teams exchanged shots in the first 15 minutes, Clarke catching two efforts at one end and Connolly forcing Fleetwood keeper Chris Maxwell into a straightforward stop with United's first effort on target. Nathan Pond then guided an 18th-minute header wide with the most presentable of the early chances.
It had been honours even but on 33 minutes the Cod Army found the net with a set piece that was simplicity itself. Sarcevic drove in a corner from the left. There was a near post touch, a moment of hesitation in defence and Ball was almost on the line as he touched home to make it 1-0 with his 13th goal of the season.
The goal lifted Fleetwood and had the opposite effect on the U's. Clarke saved well from Ian Hume after 40 minutes and then with his legs from another Ball shot to keep it at 1-0 at the break. After an even first 30 minutes United will have been grateful to get in and have a chance to regroup but six minutes into the second half they were 2-0 down and facing a small mountain.
Again it was a set piece. Davies was adjudged to have baulked Josh Morris on the edge of the area. The ball was touched to Sarcevic who blasted at goal despite sub Nicky Wroe, on for Andy Whing at half time, closing the shot down as quickly as possible. Wroe's rush was too late and the ball arrowed into the top-right corner with Clarke well beaten.
Something needed to be done and off came Smalley and Connolly to be replaced by Dave Kitson and James Constable. It gave the U's a different threat but it still took a good save from Clarke to keep Hume out on 58 as Fleetwood continued to impress.
United raised the tempo for the last 25 minutes and the game was played mostly in the Fleetwood half but there was the constant danger of a breakaway third for the visitors who had no real reason to thrown men forward. Kitson had a header saved with five minutes to go but by then it would have been a consolation.
Five games left and five chances to turn things around as United slip out of the play-offs for the first time this season.
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Report by Chris Williams, Pictures by Steve Daniels Stats by OPTA
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