Oxford United lost for the first time in 2018 this afternoon when goals from Amadou Bakayoko and Erhun Oztumer plus a string of fine saves from keeper Liam Roberts earned Walsall a 2-1 win despite a fine Alex Mowatt goal for the U's.
United, all in black, needed returning skipper John Mousinho and his centre-half partner Aaron Martin to combine to clear a fifth-minute effort from almost under the bar but then started to hit their stride and cause problems for the home defence. Martin almost found the breakthrough with a downwards header on 12 minutes from a well-flighted free kick from Alex Mowatt, playing in central midfield after impressing in the Checkatrade Trophy game at Charlton in midweek.
Always comfortable on the ball, United enjoyed the bulk of the possession in the first half hour, forcing corners and sending in a string of dangerous crosses and James Henry, back in the side, almost put them ahead after 25 minutes after clever play from Jack Payne set him free inside the box. His stabbed effort was well saved by home keeper Roberts, who then made an even better stop when Wes Thomas’s header looked destined for the corner of the net until the keeper reached it at full stretch. No fault of the striker, whose header was firm and true, just an excellent stop and two crucial saves that turned the game Walsall's way.
United had done well but on 33 minutes they were behind from a clever piece of thinking from the Saddlers. Awarded a free kick just outside the box, they took it quickly and United’s defence were on the backfoot when the cross came in from the left and Bakayoko had a simple task to knock the ball in at the back post. (I think that it might have been with his shin in the end but no matter. 1-0).
Three minutes into the second half the task became twice as hard when the excellent Oztumer scored the second. Challenging Mousinho for a bouncing ball Oztumer reacted swiftly to reach the second ball and lob a speculative effort goalwards. Eastwood was well off his line and reached up a hand to make a save but the ball continued on its goalbound trajectory and trickled over the line despite the keeper’s best efforts to get back and smother it.
Eastwood then had to make a decent save from a rising Joe Edwards effort after 50 minutes and Mousinho threw himself in the way of a Bakayoko effort on the hour to keep the U's in the game before Mowatt gave them real hope on 70 with a terrific goal.
Taking responsibility for a free kick right on the D, Mowatt curled a left-footed drive round the wall and beyond Roberts to make it 2-1 and game on.
Obika then should have levelled things when a magnificent ball from Henry sent him through on goal. Roberts spread himself and Obika was denied by the keeper's outstretched arm as he tried to go round him. That was nothing. On 76 Roberts made the best save of the lot when he somehow got the tips of his fingers to a Henry drive that was heading for the top corner otherwise.
United were pouring forward and the game was being played exclusively in front of the magnificent away fans - those youngsters on the Family Away Day surely loved the drama? Obika and sub Agon Mehmeti went agonisingly close but it was one of those days where United just could not find a late goal.
A double for Walsall but when the home keeper is Man of the Match you know you've done OK.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Steve Daniels, stats by OPTA
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