The complete performance, making history and proving play-off credentials: Matt Scrafton's verdict on Blackpool's magnificent win against Oxford
Without wanting to reveal trade secrets, reporters often like to begin columns like this with a witty introduction to hook you in. But sometimes it’s nice just to let the numbers do the talking.
Blackpool have won four away games in a row, something they hadn’t previously achieved since 2007 (and we all know how that season ended...).
They’re unbeaten in their last nine outings. Six of those unbeaten games have been accompanied by clean sheets. Only one side has conceded fewer goals this season. Yesterday’s win against Oxford was their first ever triumph at the Kassam Stadium.
Most importantly of all, Neil Critchley’s side now sit just three points off sixth-placed Charlton Athletic with FOUR games in hand still to play. They now find themselves in the top 10 for the first time since the second weekend of the campaign.
On Friday, I penned a column quandering why some supporters were still feeling a little lukewarm about the chances of Blackpool launching a genuine tilt at the play-offs.
In hindsight, the question shouldn’t have been ‘can they do it?’, it should have been ‘why has it taken everyone so long to realise they’re right in the mix?!’
I’ve said it before, but I think it’s worth repeating again, since Blackpool’s horrendous start to the campaign – where they lost six of their first nine games – they’ve been tremendous.
Since losing at AFC Wimbledon in October, the Seasiders have lost just four of their following 24 games. Never mind play-off form, that’s top-two material.
If Blackpool are able to win on Tuesday night and complete the double over high-flying Peterborough United, they’ll move into the play-offs for the first time this season.
This run goes beyond ‘form’ now. Neil Critchley’s side have demonstrated for months that they’re hard to beat and, while they’ve endured some frustrating draws, especially at home, they’re averaging a win almost every other game.
If there’s been one criticism of Blackpool in recent weeks, it’s been their shyness in front of goal – having scored just four goals in five games prior to Saturday’s encounter.
While they’ve been rock solid at the back, their football hasn’t been as free-flowing and adventurous as Critchley would have liked. Other than the Fleetwood game, Pool have struggled to create clear-cut chances on a regular basis.
But that was all change against Oxford. The Seasiders were at their fluent best, producing arguably their best performance of the season to date to leapfrog their play-off rivals in the table in the process.
They set their stall out early on, pinning Oxford – who had enjoyed an impressive 3-0 win against promotion-chasing Doncaster Rovers in midweek – back into their own half.
The Seasiders pressed, closed down and harried right from the front and were quick, incisive and intelligent with their build-up play. This was the type of performance and style we expect from a Critchley team.
Sullay Kaikai, who was back to his best, delivering arguably his best performance of the season, was a big threat early on, especially from set-pieces.
The 25-year-old probably ought to have slipped in Luke Garbutt down the left early on, with the full-back left in acres of space, but Kaikai opted to let fly, shooting narrowly over from 25 yards.
Kaikai was involved once again as Blackpool came within a whisker of breaking the deadlock after 15 minutes, when his threatening corner was met by Dan Ballard. The defender towered above his marker to nod towards goal, only to see his header scrambled off the line by an Oxford man.
Given Blackpool’s dominance, you got the feeling they simply had to capitalise on it – something they’ve not always managed to do this season.
Lo and behold, the Seasiders made that all-important breakthrough just a minute after Ballard had come so close.
Another Kaikai corner was partially cleared and worked back into the box by the returning Jordan Thorniley, the ball falling kindly for Kenny Dougall to stab home not only his first Blackpool goal, but also his first in English football.
The visitors didn’t sit back on their lead, they kept their foot on the pedal and continued to cause Oxford plenty of problems, Kaikai fizzing one agonisingly wide from range.
Karl Robinson’s men did have a couple of opportunities, the clearest one falling for Mark Sykes who arrowed a shot just wide of Chris Maxwell’s upright.
But Blackpool remained the side in the ascendancy and their pressure told on the stroke of half-time, when Ballard made no mistake with this header – from, you guessed it, yet another Kaikai corner – to double his side’s lead. It was no more than Pool deserved.
It was heartening to see Pool’s recent work on set-pieces on the training ground come to fruition. When margins are so fine, as they often are in games involving the Seasiders, they can often prove to be the difference.
As you would expect, with nothing to lose, the U’s threw caution to the wind in the second-half and threw bodies forward.
The Seasiders weathered this period well and wasted two or three good opportunities on the break to make life more comfortable for themselves, but they ended up seeing out the remainder of the game with an impressive level of maturity and composure, keeping the ball in the Oxford half rather than defending their lead.
You sensed this was a big game against a potential rival and Pool passed the test with flying colours. Beating Oxford, the home of the AstraZeneca jab, is a huge shot in the arm for their play-off credentials.
Depleted by injuries to seven key first-team players and continuing to play every few days, you’re almost half-expecting Pool to waver at some point and wilt under the pressure.
Nope, not this Blackpool side. They’re getting stronger and stronger all the time.
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