Oxford United were beaten but should be very proud of their efforts after they pushed one of the best sides in the world all the way this evening. Goals from Gabriel Jesus and late efforts from Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden divided the teams in front of a full house on a memorable night at Grenoble Road but the U's showed admirable team spirit and were given an ovation by their fans at the end.
After a tremendous welcome that turned the stadium into a Sea of Yellow, and with a capacity crowd generating a terrific atmosphere, United, as you might expect, had to concede ground to the Champions and Carabao Cup holders who named probably the strongest visiting eleven ever seen in Oxford.
The U’s were far from overawed though, with Shandon Baptiste wearing the captain’s armband with pride and Sam Long and Rob Dickie extremely solid on their returns to the starting line up. City, in a purple and orange kit, did get the ball beyond Jonathan Mitchell with an offside effort after 18 minutes but it was United getting the cheers for a prolonged period of possession when they (temporarily at least) outpassed City.
The visitors began to make ominous noises though. Mitchell made a good save from Oleksandr Zinchenko. David Silva swivelled and fired wide moments later. A VIncent Kompany header was cleared by Curtis Nelson after half an hour and Mahrez curled an effort over on 34 minutes; just looking at those names gives you an idea of the task that United faced. United had done well but on 36 minutes the resistance was broken. Brahim Diaz got in behind the defence, had his shot blocked and Jesus nodded home at the back post to make it 1-0.
Mahrez curled another effort just wide before half time but United had restricted their visitors to half chances rather than being ripped apart and will have been relatively pleased with their first-half performance: losing but far from overrun.
Unusually, United now had a dilemma. Losing at home but knowing that if they opened up and took the game to the visiting team they would leave themselves exposed and get picked off. Mahrez peppered the car park with a couple of speculative efforts; the fans locked out and sitting atop a Transit van behind the fence seemingly more in danger than Mitchell in United's goal and they were dislodged on 68 minutes when Jesus fired straight at them!
Cameron Brannagan's return lasted 55 minutes before he was taken off as a precaution; City's abundance of riches demonstrated perfectly when they brought on Raheem Sterling at the same stage. Mitchell pushed away another Mahrez drive on 71 and United had defended stoutly. Long was relishing the challenge on his return from injury, exemplifying the spirit and effort that the whole team were putting in.
They may not have created too many chances but eventually when they tried to chase the game it caught them out. Ricky Holmes tried his luck from 30 yards but missed by a fair distance, a long Long throw on 74 caused chaos and forced a corner and then U's went for broke on 77 minutes by throwing on Sam Smith and going with two up front.
A risky move and before it could have any effect it was 2-0 and game over. It came from a Nelson throw towards the box for the U's that was cleared and allowed City to burst clear and bear down on the stretched back line. Phil Foden picked his moment and then rolled it through for Mahrez who finished brilliantly, giving Mitchell no chance and sending City into the next round. Foden then sealed it with an injury time drive after another swift break, a clinical pass from Sterling and a drive in to the far corner for 3-0.
No shame for the U's who gave it their all but found City too strong. No great surprise. A good night, a great crowd, and now for the important stuff: a trip to AFC Wimbledon on Saturday.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Steve Daniels, Stats by OPTA
This report is dedicated to the memory of Steve Maycock.