Oxford United 0-2 Blackpool: Superb Seasiders close gap on League One play-offs with fourth straight away win
Brilliant Blackpool made it four away wins on the spin for the first time since 2007 with a crucial three points against play-off rivals Oxford United, leapfrogging them in the League One table in the process.
Kenny Dougall and Dan Ballard netted the all-important goals as the Seasiders - depleted by injuries to SEVEN key first-team players, extended their unbeaten run to nine games in the process.
Neil Critchley’s side did the damage during a magnificent first 45 minutes, where they had Oxford pinned back in their own half through a combination of constant pressing and clever build-up play.
The result, Blackpool’s first ever win at the Kassam Staidum, sees them move into the top 10 for the first time since September.
Critchley’s side now sit three points adrift of the play-offs with four games in hand to play on sixth-placed Charlton Athletic.
The Seasiders, already in the midst of a mini injury crisis, were dealt another fitness blow before kick-off with James Husband becoming the latest player to pick up a knock.
According to Pool’s head coach Critchley, the defender - who has been playing in the centre of defence in recent weeks - picked up an issue with the bottom of his foot during Tuesday night’s draw against Burton Albion.
While it’s not thought to be too serious, it was enough to see Husband drop out of the squad altogether.
With centre-backs Marvin Ekpiteta and Daniel Gretarsson already missing through injury, Critchley drafted Jordan Thorniley back into the side in Husband’s place.
Elsewhere, Grant Ward and Elliot Embleton replaced Demetri Mitchell and Ellis Simms respectively, as Pool began the game in the 4-2-3-1 system that proved so effective in the second-half of their midweek clash against Burton.
Kevin Stewart, Keshi Anderson, CJ Hamilton and Gary Madine all remain sidelined alongside Ekpiteta and Gretarsson.
Youth-team striker Brad Holmes was named among the substitutes for the second game running, joined by fellow prospect Cameron Antwi.
Oxford, meanwhile, made one change to the side that claimed an impressive 3-0 win against play-off rivals Doncaster Rovers in midweek.
The first effort of the afternoon came the way of Blackpool after seven minutes, with Sullay Kaikai shooting over from range.
The winger’s effort was a good one, but Luke Garbutt to his left looked to be the better option with the left-back marauding into the empty space.
The Seasiders made a bright start to proceedings, pressing high up the pitch and building up their attacks with some incisive one and two-touch passing.
The visitors came so close to capitalising on their positive start in the 15th minute, when Dan Ballard’s towering header from Kaikai’s corner was cleared off the line.
But they weren’t left to rue the missed opportunity for too long as, just a minute later, Kenny Dougall handed Pool a deserved early lead.
The midfielder, scoring his first goal for the club, scrambled home in scrappy style after Oxford had failed to clear their lines under sustained Pool pressure.
Pool continued to look calm and composed after their breakthrough, although Jordan Thorniley had to be alert to make a vital interception just as a dangerous ball in looked to be falling for Matty Taylor at the back post.
Oxford enjoyed their first spell of pressure from this moment onwards and were unlucky not to draw themselves level when Mark Sykes sent a rasping drive inches wide of Chris Maxwell’s upright.
Pool maintained an attacking threat though and came close to doubling their lead in the 32nd minute.
It came about thanks to Dougall’s superb closing down, which allowed Kaikai the chance to surge towards goal, cut inside and unleash a powerful drive that dropped agonisingly wide with Jack Stevens at full stretch.
Pool were given something of a let-off eight minutes before the interval when Ollie Turton was caught out by a long, diagonal ball, but thankfully for Critchley’s men Brandon Barker was unable to capitalise, blazing his cross over everybody’s heads.
The Seasiders had been hugely impressive in the first-half against their play-off rivals, the only thing lacking being a second goal.
But that all changed on the stroke of half-time when Dan Ballard headed home from another threatening Kaikai corner.
The corner was conceded in such cheap fashion by the home side, who had played the ball behind themselves under no real pressure as they looked to build from deep after Stevens had collected a dipping Kaikai free-kick.
Oxford boss Robinson, deeply unhappy with his side’s first-half display, rang the changes at the break with two substitutions.
But Pool picked up from where they had left off, going close to a third as Kaikai’s dangerous low ball caused havoc inside the Oxford box.
The winger’s cross beat keeper Stevens at the near post but Rob Atkinson somehow managed to avoid turning the ball into his own net.
The home side began to throw caution to the wind in their bid to reduce the deficit, which led to the game opening up a little.
Atkinson headed straight at Maxwell from a deep free-kick, before Elliot Embleton had a low effort saved by Stevens.
The referee waved away Blackpool’s appeals for a penalty shortly afterwards after Grant Ward appeared to be tripped in the box.
With Ward still down, Oxford broke at speed immediately and had men over, but failed to capitalise.
With the game continuing at break-neck speed, the Seasiders raced up the other end, with Embleton going close with a low shot which bobbled just wide of the far post.
A third goal would have put the game to bed for good and Pool nearly found it through the superb Kaikai, who was thwarted by Stevens after being slipped in by Jerry Yates.
Oxford continued to throw bodies forward and ought to have pulled one back in the 64th minute, when the ball fell kindly at the back post for Mark Sykes who could only slice wide.
As if Blackpool’s misfortune with injuries hadn’t been bad enough, they were dealt another major blow when Matty Virtue was forced to hobble off.
The midfielder, who immediately held his face and signalled for the physio to come on, was replaced by Jordan Gabriel.
Pool had no interest in holding on to their two-goal lead, instead picking their moments and looking to counter in their search for a third.
They almost found it when Elliot Embleton played a lovely one-two with Yates before seeing his cross/shot skip off the top of the crossbar.
Oxford, meanwhile, became increasingly urgent in the dying stages, with Maxwell required to beat away a powerful drive from former Pool loanee Dan Agyei.
Pool showed a lot of composure late on as they saw out the remaining minutes in a measured and mature manner, and could even added a third at the death when substitute Jordan Gabriel lobbed over.
Oxford: Stevens, Ruffles, Atkinson, Moore, Barker, Gorrin (Forde), Kelly (Shodipo), Brannagan, Hanson, Sykes (Agyei), Taylor (Winnall)
Subs not used: Eastwood, Hall, Grayson
Blackpool: Maxwell, Turton, Ballard, Thorniley, Garbutt, Dougall, Virtue (Gabriel), Ward, Embleton (Robson), Kaikai (Mitchell), Yates (Simms)
Subs not used: Moore, Antwi, Holmes
Referee: Peter Wright
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