Another play-off game, another win: Matt Scrafton's verdict as Blackpool place one foot in the final with comprehensive first leg win at Oxford
Blackpool know better than anyone the pitfalls of getting too giddy about winning the first leg of a play-off semi-final.
There will be no “directions to Wembley” features printed in the match-day programme on this occasion, like there was back in 1996 prior to THAT disastrous second leg against Bradford.
We’ve heard the old clichés trotted out already - it’s only half-time, only half a job done, just concentrating on the next game etc. While it might not make for great headlines, it’s all true.
But as first leg leads go, especially when the opening tie is away from home, leads don’t come much more emphatic than this.
It must be noted though that, if there’s any side in the play-offs that are capable of coming back from the dead and turning around a three-goal deficit, it’s Oxford
Karl Robinson’s side are the top scorers out of the four and scored 24 goals in their last seven games of the season, which helped them snatch a play-off spot on the final day.
But on the same hand, if there’s one side in League One who are capable of stopping anyone, it’s Blackpool.
They’ve yet to concede against the U’s this season in four-and-a-half hours of football and finished the campaign with the league’s meanest defence, conceding just 37 goals in 46 games.
And while Oxford were on a fine run of form prior to Tuesday night’s first leg, Blackpool aren’t exactly doing too bad themselves - winning five straight games without conceding a goal.
The Seasiders have only let in two goals in their last nine games, so the chances of them conceding three in one game seems slim. But stranger things have happened.
Oxford did cause Blackpool problems at the Kassam and created two or three good openings, but the clearer-cut chances fell to Neil Critchley’s men, who were well-drilled, defensively organised and utterly ruthless when opportunities came their way.
The Seasiders still don’t appear to be earning the plaudits from outsiders that their performances, results and form deserve. But I’d imagine that suits them just fine.
Being a side that works tirelessly out of possession just isn’t sexy enough, I guess...
Oxford, buoyed by their final-day qualification and the return of 3,200 fans (a surprisingly low figure, given 4,000 tickets were available), were quick out of the blocks early on, as to be expected.
With just three minutes on the clock, James Husband was perhaps a little fortunate to only escape with a yellow card after bringing Mark Sykes to the ground as he surged through on goal.
Robinson, forced to watch from the stands as he served the second game of his four-match touchline ban, was furious. But former Premier League referee deemed Ollie Turton was covering nearby.
Once that moment of panic passed, Oxford never really got a look-in. Blackpool successfully weathered the storm and, slowly but surely, began to take control of the game.
Once the home supporters, most of whom hadn’t attended a game in 14 months, began to moan, groan and voice their displeasure, you knew Blackpool were in the ascendancy.
They probably ought to have edged their noses in front in the 19th minute, when both Keshi Anderson and Elliot Embleton were denied in quick succession due to a combination of saves and blocks.
But, just four minutes later, Turton tapped home into an empty net after Embleton’s inswinging free-kick had caused havoc inside the Oxford box. What a time to get your first goal of the season.
Another four minutes later, one rapidly became two as on-fire striker Ellis Simms expertly hooked the ball over the head of befuddled defender Rob Atkinson before firing home, via the aid of a slight deflection.
The somewhat tame atmosphere at the Kassam, which was something of a surprise given the length of fans’ absence, was completely silenced at this point.
Boasting a two-goal lead was great, but Pool knew the next goal would prove crucial. Embleton nearly added a third, whistling a shot just past the post, before Jerry Yates blazed over when he really ought to have scored, despite being at a tight angle.
But the pivotal moment in the game came when Sykes was set free down the centre of the pitch once again. But this time it wasn’t Husband who stopped him illegally, it was Chris Maxwell - who had otherwise enjoyed a fairly quiet evening - who made a sublime stop to preserve Blackpool’s lead.
The true mark of a great player is the ability to deliver the goods in the big moments and Maxwell has done that time and time again this season.
Oxford continued to rally, as James Henry skewed over from a good position, but their heads well and truly dropped when Simms added Pool’s third with his second of the evening.
The striker, scoring for the fifth time in just three games and reaching double figures for the season having only joined in January, finished off a flowing counter-attacking move.
The 20-year-old exchanged passes with Yates, who showed impressive patience and awareness to wait for exactly the right moment to deliver the through-ball. It was weighted to perfection for Simms to prod home beyond Jack Stevens.
Pool saw out the remainder of the game with the professionalism and discipline we’ve come to expect of them. Oxford’s night, meanwhile, went from bad to worse, as both Cameron Brannagan and Sam Winnall limped off with hamstring injuries.
Pool, the play-off Kings, held on for a scintillating victory which makes it 11 semi-final games unbeaten in this format. Their overall record in play-off ties now stands at 17 wins from 24 games, a truly remarkable statistic.
The most important record, five promotions from eight play-off campaigns, could be about to get even better. But we're not getting ahead of ourselves, remember...
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