Oxford United 0 Northampton Town 1 '“ match review, player ratings and highlights
If Rob Page goes on to make a success out of being Northampton manager, he will surely look back on this game as the moment when everything changed, when his side finally put it all together by combining a convincing performance with three priceless points.
For a while now Northampton have given the impression of a team who are better than their results suggest, so often coming up just short in tight games, but the fact that they have been unable to stop the rot has only heightened the pressure on all those involved, particularly Page.
And in times of such difficulty, you sometimes need a moment of inspiration to lift spirits and turn the corner. For Page on Monday, that’s exactly what he got. As Boxing Days go, this one was right up there.
And though those of an Oxford persuasion may think otherwise, this victory, achieved in sensational circumstances, was richly deserved.
Because although United had much of the ball and did much of the leg work, it was Northampton who managed to ally defensive resilience with attacking threat to produce the complete away performance.
Indeed, it was the Cobblers who, despite seeing less of the ball, created the game’s four clearest chances and, finally, after several presentable opportunities went begging in a scrappy yet compelling affair, they took advantage through Marc Richards’ smart finish.
Of course, not all will see it that way. The Oxford manager being one.
Michael Appleton’s post-match anger at the officials was understandable, and he had a point, but perhaps he should be more concerned with his side’s lack of killer instinct and punch in the final third which has seen them fail to net in any of their last three meetings with Northampton, all three ending 1-0, rather than the referee.
Appleton’s frustration was reasonable but them’s the breaks, just ask David Cornell last week.
And anyway, it wasn’t the referee who gave Lewin Nyatanga a free header and it wasn’t the referee who afforded the freedom of the Oxford penalty area to both Paul Anderson and Alfie Potter for two separate chances that could and should have put the away side in front.
What almost undid the Cobblers on Monday – missed chances – has been a theme of their season to date, but it was the absence of something else that laid the foundation for this victory.
Sloppy mistakes and weak defending are two factors that have contributed to Northampton’s downfall in recent weeks, something which is reflected in the stats.
They went into Monday without a clean sheet in 13 league games, having conceded 25 goals in that time.
Most of that has been down to basic, fundamental mistakes on Northampton’s part instead of inventive attacking play or a moment of magic from the opposition.
Clean sheets form the basis of any self-respecting team and that was the most pleasing aspect of Monday’s outing; the fact that Town restricted Oxford to so few clear chances thanks to a resolute defensive performance throughout the 90 minutes.
For the first time in a long time, the Cobblers looked hard to beat.
Page revealed afterwards that they have spent all week working on defending and the results were clear for all to see.
There were no lapses in concentration and no slacking off. Oxford probed and pressed but were repeatedly rebuffed by their stubborn visitors who refused to be beaten.
United failed to turn possession into clear-cut chances as they forced Adam Smith into just the one save of note, with most of their 13 shots coming from range.
What Northampton also did on this occasion was turn the fine margins, which have for so long gone against them this season, in their favour.
That’s what you get when you work so hard and play with such resilience, and that attitude was epitomised by the outstanding Gabriel Zakuani who made countless interceptions, headers and blocks to lead the Cobblers rearguard.
Elsewhere, Alfie Potter performed well on his return to the team as his driving runs and slick footwork created several half chances, while Marc Richards and Alex Revell were a handful up front.
Oxford fans may feel differently but this was not a case of Northampton being direct to counter the home side’s threat because, at times, the visitors played some good stuff and created decent chances, with Potter, Lewin Nyatanga, Paul Anderson and Harry Beautyman all guilty of failing to convert.
But those missed opportunities would all be forgotten in a stunning finale.
In the third of four added minutes, Richards showed quick thinking and smart footwork to divert home Beautyman’s wayward volley, cuing scenes of pandemonium among players, fans and even coaches.
It was a wonderful sight, and it was nothing more than Northampton deserved.
There has been much doom and gloom around in recent weeks but, equally, there have also been green shoots of promise; glimpses that Page is moulding a decent side.
What they have lacked, however, has been nous, ruthlessness and game management.
All of those were on show on Boxing Day, and one thing is for certain: the energy-sapping, gritty and tenacious performance shows the players are very much on Page’s side, reflected in the glorious scenes at the full-time whistle.
The win stops a worrying rot – for now anyway – and puts breathing space between Northampton and the bottom five, who now trail by nine points and threaten to be cut adrift.
That will ease relegation fears, but with two title contenders to come in three days this weekend, there must be no resting on any laurels.
As sweet as this victory was, Northampton must ensure it’s not a one-off, and there’s no better place to prove that than at the home of an old friend.
It’s the last game of 2016 and the perfect way to end a memorable year.
How they rated...
Adam Smith - Back between the sticks and couldn’t have expected to enjoy such a quiet afternoon, forced into just the one save despite all of Oxford’s probing. Most of his work came on crosses when he showed more authority and better decision-making, which bodes well... 7
Aaron Phillips - Conceded two early free-kicks which might have been costly in a jittery start to the game, but settled and improved and helped his side to chalk up a clean sheet... 7
Gabriel Zakuani - Immense. Always in the right place to get in a key header or important block as he led the Northampton rearguard, none more so than when producing a stunning last-ditch block to thwart Maguire. Will be missed when he heads to the Africa Cup of Nations... 9 CHRON STAR MAN
Lewin Nyatanga - Wasted an excellent chance to head his side ahead in the first-half but made amends by standing firm at the other end, helping to earn a long overdue clean sheet... 8
David Buchanan - Steady, as usual, despite getting caught out of position on one occasion. His performance level rarely dips even if the team isn’t playing well, and he deserved to keep a clean sheet here... 8
Alfie Potter - Hoskins’ injury meant a rare start for Potter, who was a bright spark down the right side of midfield but couldn’t quite find the killer pass or finish, highlighted when he was through on goal yet delayed his shot long enough to allow Oxford to get the block in... 7
John-Joe O’Toole - His ill-discipline reared its head again, so much so he could well have been replaced before half-time. However, whilst fortunate not to see red, his tenacity and industry in midfield was key to nullifying Oxford’s threat... 7
Matty Taylor - Caused trouble all afternoon with his crosses, both from open play and set-pieces, and it was his corner that led to the winner. This is more of what we expect from the former Premier League man... 8
Paul Anderson - Not universally liked among fans but his defensive contribution can often go unnoticed and in a game like this where everyone had to be on guard, that was valuable. Was one of several players guilty of missing chances though... 7
Alex Revell - Worked his socks off to chase everything down and hold the ball up despite some unceremonious Oxford defending at times. His frustrations in front of goal persist though... 7
Marc Richards - Twice went close with his head before having the final say with a brilliantly improvised winner, smartly flicking into the net to send the away fans wild... 8
Harry Beautyman - 7
Disagree with these ratings? Vote for your man of the match here - www.northamptonchron.co.uk/sport/football/vote-who-was-your-cobblers-man-of-the-match-against-oxford