Oxford United 0-3 Blackpool: Everton loanee Ellis Simms at the double as Seasiders place one foot in the League One play-off final
Blackpool have one foot in the League One play-off final after a scintillating first leg win against Oxford United.
The Seasiders will take a thoroughly deserved three-goal lead back to Bloomfield Road for the decisive second leg on Friday night.
Neil Critchley’s men kept the returning 4,000 Oxford fans quiet with a disciplined, professional display.
Pool, who have still yet to concede against the U’s this season, took a two-goal first-half lead thanks to quickfire goals from Ollie Turton - scoring for the first time this season - and Ellis Simms
Simms then added a third in the second period, his fifth goal in his last three games, to put the icing on the cake.
The victory means Pool remain unbeaten in their last 11 play-off semi-finals and take their overall play-off record to 17 wins in 24 games.
Should Critchley’s men make it to the Wembley final, they’ll be bidding to clinch an unprecedented sixth promotion from their nine play-off campaigns.
Pool head into Friday’s second leg in supreme form, having won their last five games without conceding a goal.
Critchley opted to revert to a back four, despite ending the season with four straight wins without conceding a goal playing three at the back.
That saw Jordan Thorniley drop out of the side and James Husband partner Dan Ballard in the centre of defence. Luke Garbutt and Ollie Turton were the full-backs of choice.
With Grant Ward still out injured, Kevin Stewart started in central midfield alongside Kenny Dougall, while Keshi Anderson and Elliot Embleton were preferred on the flanks in the absence of the injured Sullay Kaikai.
Ellis Simms, meanwhile, partnered Jerry Yates in attack after ending the campaign with three goals in his last two games.
Ethan Robson returned from a groin injury to return to the bench, where he was joined by Gary Madine - who made his long-awaited comeback off the bench during Pool’s final day win against Bristol Rovers.
Daniel Gretarsson, Matty Virtue and CJ Hamilton are out injured and will play no part in Pool’s play-off campaign, while Bez Lubala remains unavailable due to a ‘club matter’.
Oxford, meanwhile, made two changes to the side that thrashed Burton Albion 4-0 on the final day to leapfrog Portsmouth into sixth place.
Prior to kick-off, the two clubs paid tribute to Jordan Banks with Critchley and Oxford boss Karl Robinson posing in front of nine footballs.
In the ninth minute, spontaneous applause also rang out around the ground with Critchley also joining in from the touchline.
The nine-year-old was tragically killed after being struck by lightning while taking part in football training in Blackpool last week.
Roared on by 4,000 returning Oxford fans, the home side made the brighter start, threatening inside the opening three minutes.
James Husband was fortunate to escape with only a booking after bringing down Mark Sykes as he surged through on goal. Referee Bobby Madley opted to avoid a straight red with Ollie Turton covering nearby.
The U’s threatened again early on when Brandon Barker was allowed to run from one end of the pitch to the other before Pool were saved by the linesman’s raised flag at the decisive moment.
Critchley’s men weathered the early storm and began to grow in confidence, while Oxford were forced to sit back and pick and choose their moments to attack.
But the Seasiders began to work the ball into some threatening positions in the final third and were looking dangerous, coming so close to breaking the deadlock in the 19th minute.
Ellis Simms was set free down the left channel and his shot was blocked into the path of Keshi Anderson, whose shot was saved by Jack Stevens. The ball remained alive though and Elliot Embleton looked to have a simple tap-in, but Elliot Moore somehow managed to make a miraculous goalline block.
Pool weren’t left to rue the missed opportunity for too long though as they edged their noses in front just four minutes later.
It was a scrappy goal, but the Seasiders won’t have cared. Ollie Turton was the man to tap home into an empty net after Embleton’s inswinging free-kick had caused havoc among the Oxford ranks.
It was Turton’s first goal of the campaign and his first in 21 months - and what a time to get it.
One rapidly became two, as Ellis Simms doubled Blackpool’s lead with a superb solo goal.
The Everton loanee, scoring for the fourth time in three games, hooked the ball over the head of Rob Atkinson before slamming home, via the aid of a slight deflection.
With Oxford desperately searching for a route back into the game, they had vociferous penalty appeals waved away by Madley 10 minutes before the break after the ball had inadvertently hit the hand of a Blackpool defender.
On the rare occasion Oxford did threaten, it was down their left through Barker, who caused plenty of problems with his trickery on the ball.
A partially blocked cross from the winger fell at the feet of striker Matty Taylor, whose goalbound effort was well blocked by Dan Ballard.
The Seasiders almost added a third five minutes into the second-half when Embleton avoided a couple of challenges to whistle agonisingly wide from the edge of the Oxford box.
At the other end, Chris Maxwell - who had enjoyed a quiet evening up to this point - stayed tall to make a big, big save to deny Sykes, who had been set free down the middle of the pitch.
Critchley was then forced into a change, withdrawing Luke Garbutt from the action after the full-back had gone down with a knock. Jordan Thorniley was the man to replace him, allowing Husband to return to left-back.
Just before the hour-mark, Pool’s top scorer Jerry Yates squandered a priceless opportunity to add his name to the scoresheet.
The marauding Husband provided a teasing cross towards the back post, where Yates could only blaze over. It was a tight angle, but the 22-goal forward really ought to have scored.
The U’s wasted a glorious chance of their own a couple of moments later when James Henry steered over after some dangerous wing play from Barker down the left yet again.
Pool looked to wind the clock down at every opportunity from the hour-mark onwards, but it only served to invite more pressure from Robinson’s men.
Nevertheless, Pool kept their discipline and defended resolutely, producing a series of vital blocks, clearances and interceptions.
With just over 15 minutes on the clock, Blackpool added a crucial third goal.
Simms was the man to notch for the second time on the night, slotting home after being played in by strike partner Yates to finish off a flowing counter-attacking move.
Oxford’s night went from bad to worse in stoppage-time when they were forced to end the game with 10 men, when Cameron Brannagan hobbled off with an injury with all five subs already being made.
Oxford: Stevens, Hanson (Forde), Moore, Atkinson, Ruffels, Brannagan, Sykes, Henry, Barker (Shodipo), Lee (Agyei), Taylor (Winnall, Gorrin)
Subs not used: Eastwood, McNally
Blackpool: Maxwell, Turton, Ballard, Husband, Garbutt (Thorniley), Dougall, Stewart, Embleton (Gabriel), Anderson (Mitchell), Simms, Yates (Madine)
Subs not used: Moore, Ekpiteta, Robson
Referee: Bobby Madley
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