Oxford United ended 2021 with another emphatic victory this evening, turning on the style to beat AFC Wimbledon 3-0 at the Kassam Stadium.
First half goals from Mark Sykes and Matty Taylor were followed by a Sam Long strike in the second half as United left their fans dreaming, perhaps for the first time this season, not of the play-offs but maybe something even greater.
Boss Karl Robinson had the luxury of excess players to choose from, with Jordan Thorniley, Cameron Brannagan and Herbie Kane all returning, although a calf injury kept out James Henry and a positive Covid test ruled out Dan Agyei. No matter who he picks, there is a depth to the squad that is only going to grow over the next month.
Ryan Williams, Man of the Match in the last game against Wigan and Man of the Match again tonight, retained his place and once again showed his versatility as well as his never-to-be disupted work rate. Indeed, Gavin Whyte might have made more of an early cross from him that just eluded the winger inside the six yard box as the U’s took complete control of a very one-sided first half.
Brannagan and Taylor had shots blocked from inside the box, Sykes had two, and Brannagan almost won Goal of the Season with a shot on the turn after Kane had fizzed the ball into him on the edge of the box, all before Sykes put them ahead after 27 minutes with an excellent move that actually took them more than the length of the pitch.
Wimbledon tried to keep the ball in at Simon Eastwood’s end of the pitch (it was a yard out) and United carried the ball all the way to the line at the other end before Williams cut it back and Sykes buried his seventh goal of a very impressive season.
On 38 it was 2-0 and again it came from clever movement on the flanks. This time it was Long then Whyte on the right, and his cross inside the six yard box was met by the sliding Taylor for perhaps the easiest of his 11 goals this season - one more and he draws level with United’s top ten scorers ever in the Football League.
The trust that United have in those around them, knowing they can be trusted to keep the ball or create something in tight spaces, is very easy on the eye and the tenacity with which they try to win it back means they are a nightmare for a team chasing them from two goals down.
Wimbledon's vociferous away fans did their best to lift their team, and for the first 15 minutes of the second half they definitely raised their game, but it was like watching the Barmy Army cheer an Ashes boundary, and even in that time Taylor had a goal chalked off for offside and Brannagan had drawn another save from the overworked Tzanev.
On the hour it was game set and match to Oxford when the superb Long popped up at the far post to slam a volley into the net to make it 3-0 and end Wimbledon's hopes of an unlikely comeback.
The pace, understandably, dropped after that, but United had done their jobs well and move on to 42 point at the halfway mark.
A good win, another clean sheet for Simon Eastwood, whose evening didn't start until he made a decent save on 82 and a second good save in injury time, and another ovation from a satisfied crowd who will be hoping 2022 can kick off in similar style when the U's welcome Cheltenham Town on New Year's Day.
Come and join us.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures Steve Edmunds and Steve Daniels, stats by OPTA