Oxford United's difficult start to the season continued with a 2-1 defeat at home to Walsall this afternoon. Goals from the dangerous Morgan Ferrier and former United loanee Zeli Ismail kept the Saddlers riding high at the top of the table, despite a late goal from James Henry that proved to be just a consolation.
Skipper John Mousinho volleyed the first chance of the afternoon wide on eight minutes although it was Walsall who then created three very presentable opportunities. They should have opened the scoring when Jon Guthrie didn’t get enough power on a header at the back post after ten minutes, Ismail fired straight at keeper Jon Mitchell after 15 minutes and Josh Gordan forced Mitchell into another save on 20 minutes.
The warning signs were there and half way through the first half the Saddlers were in front. Ferrier span in to space behind the United back line and then planted the ball through the helpless Mitchell’s legs. United protested loudly that he started from an offside position, but the goal stood and the U’s were a goal behind.
They responded positively and the two centre-halves almost got them level within five minutes. First Curtis Nelson smashed a header at goal which visiting keeper Liam Roberts saved brilliantly. Then as the pressure began to build Mousinho improvised to knee a tricky bouncing ball goalwards but the ball bounced down off the bar and was cleared in a scramble as the Walsall defence mopped up the danger.
However, the visitors should have doubled their lead on 36 when the United goal had a blessed let off. First Gordan was alive and flashed an effort against the post and then Ferrier smacked the rebound on to the bar from about five yards out.
United started the second half strongly as they chased the game, with a clipped effort from Henry drifting narrowly wide but just before the hour they were 2-0 down and had a mountain to climb. Jamie Hanson's square ball was picked off and allowed Gordan to slip the ball to the right channel where Ismail fired across Mitchell and into the bottom left corner to make it 2-0.
Having to try and claw their way back from a two-goal deficit meant United needed to gamble and risk being picked off by a Walsall side well capable of countering. Although Henry had a flick that flashed just wide at one end there was always the danger that the visitors might score again, Ferrier hitting the bar one more time to underline the danger.
United kept going and sub Jon Obika nodded a half chance over before Henry - United's most likely route to goal all day - gave his side a lifeline by sliding in to stab home a Whyte cross-shot with five minutes to go. In the end too little, too late but some reward for perseverance at least and it might even have ended a draw when sub Rob Dickie, thrown on up front, was adjudged to have fouled when to most eyes it was a foul the other way inside the box...
Indeed, there was no shortage of effort from the men in Yellow, but Walsall looked solid and effective and are a side high on confidence right now. United meanwhile will need to regroup.
Not just for Tuesday night against champions Manchester City, but for some far more important games to come in League 1.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures by Steve Daniels, stats by OPTA