Middlesbrough 3 Oxford United 2
Oxford United's hearts were broken at the Riverside this afternoon as Christhian Stuani earned Middlesbrough a 3-2 win in a storming FA Cup fifth round tie. The U's had come back from two goals down after trailing to a Grant Leadbitter penalty and a Rudy Gestede volley. United's unshakable spirit then shone through as two quick-fire second-half goals from Chris Maguire and Toni Martinez looked to have earned them a replay until Stuani stole in at the back post on 86 minutes to send the Premier League side through.
There was no thought of keeping it tight and trying to nick a goal: in came Kane Hemmings to play alongside Martinez up front, with the Spaniard forcing the first save of the game in just the second minute as he ran clear but couldn't beat home keeper Brad Guzan.
Boro also signalled their attacking intent with Gestede unable to beat Simon Eastwood with a simple looking header in the sixth minute and Leadbitter chipping a delicate effort on to the bar two minutes later as United defended for their lives. Martinez lofted an overhead kick well wide on 11, Stewart Downing drilled an effort wide at the other end and it was a bright, open FA Cup tie that was very easy on the eye.
The opening goal came on 26 minutes from the spot. Boro swept forward at speed from half way and worked the ball right to left to feed England international Downing. He showed his experience by touching the ball across the path of Maguire, trying to get back goalside of him. There was a meeting of bodies, Downing was downed and Leadbitter hit a powerful penalty into the roof of the net to beat the helpless Eastwood.
In games like this, one big moment needs to go for or against you and on 32 a major decision was to prove costly for the U's. There seemed little danger as Maguire sent a low ball towards the far post, hoping that Hemmings could get across his man and touch the ball home. As he did so Hemmings made slight contact with centre-half Bernardo who fell, with the ball snaking past both of them and into the bottom left corner of the net. Maguire was off and running towards the away fans to celebrate his moment of fortune but ref Andre Marriner was standing with his arm aloft to chalk off the 'goal' for Hemmings' foul. Big moment, big decision.
It was marginal but almost before anyone could draw breath to analyse it fully Boro were at the other end and 2-0 up when a deep cross was touched back by Adama Traore, bounced off Curtis Nelson's knee, and was volleyed home acrobatically by the flying Gestede.
It needed a smart save from Eastwood and a couple of brave blocks from Nelson and Dunkley to keep the U's in the game at half time, although a Maguire free kick right on the break forced Guzan into a save to his left and reminded Boro of the danger should they take their foot off the gas in the second half.
The second half was just as open, with United now knowing they had nothing to lose and Boro content to use the ball intelligently, invite Oxford to over-commit and then pour forward; at times there were five men sprinting forward to catch up with the ball, tracked by the ever-willing United midfield who covered miles for the cause. Would United's bravery pay off?
They started to create chances and you could sense the joy of the home fans becoming tinged with anxiety as the League 1 side showed their true colours. A Lundstram cross on the hour was brilliantly defended as Martinez tried to force it home from six yards out and the towering Dunkley and Nelson presented plenty of problems at set pieces and corners.
And then all hell broke out!
NEVER ever write this side off. An hour gone and Phil Edwards was tripped on the edge of the box. Maguire could not have been calmer as he clipped the free kick over the wall and into the top corner to make it 2-1. Boro, seemingly in control, were rocked and two minutes later were back to all-square as they were robbed in midfield, Hall rolled in Maguire and when his low effort was pushed out by Guzan it was Martinez who had stayed alert and earned his reward, levelling it at 2-2 and sending 3,300 away fans into raptures. This team does not know when it is beaten.
It had been a herculean effort to haul back a Premier League side from two goals down and both teams drew breath before we went into a frantic last few minutes. There is no competition to match this one on days like this. It might have gone either way. Sub Conor McAleny whistled a late effort just wide but on 86 minutes their hearts were finally broken. A cross from Fabio, and Stuani had stayed onside to poach a goal at the back post to send Boro through in the most dramatic fashion.
No shame in defeat. United had done the travelling Yellow Army proud. They always do. It started at Merstham, it ended at Middlesbrough, but no doubt about it, Michael Appleton's Oxford United are going places...
Report by Chris Wiliams, pictures by Darrell Fisher, stats by OPTA
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