Oxford United fought for all they were worth tonight but were undone by a Will Grigg goal with four minutes remaining as Wigan moved a step closer to promotion. After losing to a record 7-0 scoreline against the Latics earlier in the season, this was a completely different performance from the U's who gave it absolutely everything they had and were unlucky to lose out to sub Grigg's simple finish.
United saw Ricardinho dip a volley just wide in the very first minute and looked neat and compact from the very first whistle, with Canice Carroll doing an excellent job of closing men down and knitting things together in the middle of the pitch on his return in midfield. With Curtis Nelson looking like he had never been away alongside the always impressive Rob Dickie at the back, it was highly disciplined and turned it into a very studious, tactical game.
Simon Eastwood had to field a routine Max Power drive after 20 minutes but was otherwise untroubled in the first quarter of the game, while Gino van Kessel was looking a threat up front, constantly looking to get in behind the home defence and always willing to hassle defenders tempted to dawdle on the ball.
Wigan saw a Michael Jacobs cracker bounce harmlessly away off the face of the bar as we approached the half hour and Eastwood made a fine save from Power on 32 as the Latics started to apply pressure for the first time. The hard-working Alex Mowatt hacked a header off the line on 37 but United almost snatched the opening goal after 39 minutes when Carroll made great contact with a volley only to see the ball flash just wide of the left-hand post. That would have been harsh on the home side but at the same time United had been terrific in the first half, committed and resilient and determined to make amends for what happened earlier in the season.
It can't always be about free-flowing football, sometimes you have to dig in and fight for every ball and the men in all yellow certainly did that, even to the extent of taking off their only recognised striker before we reached the hour and asking Carroll to play as a lone front man. A word of praise for the way he went about that as well, shuttling across the pitch heroically to try and close down any defender who had the temerity to take more than one touch within 20 yards of him. Rarely has anyone run himself into the ground for the cause more than the young defender did tonight and it took a good challenge from Chey Dunkley to stop him running clear on goal after 73 minutes too.
It was frustrating the life out of the home fans and when they did get a chance Wigan found Eastwood, another one playing out of his skin, diving off his line to claim a through ball and barking out orders to the men in front. Sub Grigg fired over on 77 but Eastwood really hadn't had too many saves to make and United looked to be heading for their third clean sheet in four games, deserved for perseverance alone, until Devante Cole found space on the right and passed across Eastwood for Grigg, who simply couldn't miss.
The U's pressed for an equaliser but tired legs just couldn't force the pace, leaving Wigan to celebrate a famous late win but United to take rapturous applause from their superb fans who had given them magnificent backing once again.
A terrific game of football and plenty more encouraging signs despite the final scoreline.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Darrell Fisher, stats by OPTA