ITEN Match Preview: Oxford (A)
Rovers begin a spell of three away games in four with a trip to Oxford United this weekend looking to turn around some patchy form and stay in touch with the top six.
Defeat to Portsmouth last time out was a bitter pill to swallow after a game that Darren Moore’s side dominated without making it count in front of goal, reigniting the conversation around attacking options with Niall Ennis missing through injury.
Thomas ready to go
Kwame Thomas has come in to bolster Rovers’ strike-force and could be handed a full league debut at the Kassam Stadium after coming through 75 minutes in the midweek loss at Rotherham in the EFL Trophy. Thomas showed his physical presence to set up Kieran Sadlier with a good header, giving Sadlier the platform to rifle in a terrific effort. Although it may seem soon to throw Thomas in at the deep end, Darren Moore may feel he has no choice with Rovers failing to find the spark up front thus far and preferred option Ennis still battling back to full fitness.
Joe Wright also scored in the 3-2 defeat to the Millers, showing that he is finally able to be called upon as an option at centre half after a long spell on the sidelines. Although Donervon Daniels has acquitted himself well since coming in for the injured Cameron John, Wright is surely the best choice moving forward and could build on the fledgling partnership alongside Tom Anderson that Moore appeared to be working towards as his main duo in pre-season before Wright went down against Hull.
In most areas, Rovers impressed against Portsmouth with full backs Reece James and Brad Halliday in particular noticeably growing in stature and influence at both ends of the field, so wholesale changes shouldn’t be expected as the team looks to maintain an unbeaten away record in League One.
Irresistible U’s dampened by Woodburn absence
Oxford are second in the five-game form table behind unbeaten leaders Ipswich and have put together a fine run of consistency heading into the visit of Rovers. Following a dodgy August that included three successive defeats, the U’s have rounded in to form with a superb run that included a statement win away at Lincoln, dispatching the newly-promoted side 6-0 before dismantling Premier League West Ham 4-0 just a few days later.
Consistency has been key for Karl Robinson’s team with four of the back five starting every league game as well as the two creative sparks in midfield, Cameron Brannagan and James Henry. Those two are, along with summer recruit Tarique Fosu, Oxford’s joint top scorers with six goals in all competitions and will be a three-pronged threat that Darren Moore will have to find an answer for. Fosu and Henry provide the width with Brannagan as the playmaker, whilst the task of being a focal point in attack usually falls on the vastly experienced Jamie Mackie.
The absence of Ben Woodburn will be keenly felt though as the Liverpool loanee broke a metatarsal in last week’s 2-2 draw at Accrington. Woodburn has started in all but one of Oxford’s league games to date this term and usually fills the #10 role in a 4-2-3-1, although a 4-3-3 has also been utilised and this may be the sensible move for Robinson now he has to do without his most precocious talent.
Head to Head
This is not a happy hunting ground for Rovers, who can claim just one win away at Oxford in the history of the fixture, that coming way back in 1963. In the six 21st century meetings between the two sides, Rovers took three points in the first of those back in 2003 as goals from Tim Ryan and Paul Green gave Dave Penney’s side a 2-0 victory in the Division Three championship-winning season, with all five subsequent encounters ending either in a draw or an Oxford victory.
Both clashes last season ended in 2-2 draws, with Rovers earning a creditable point on the penultimate weekend at the Kassam Stadium thanks to John Marquis and an own goal from teenager Nico Jones, shoring up the last Play-Off spot that Grant McCann’s charges went on to claim. Josh Ruffels was the hero for Oxford in both prior games, scoring a 97th minute equaliser at the Keepmoat last December and netting the winner in the 96th minute in a 1-0 victory a year earlier.
Rovers will need to summon maximum effort and ability here to get a positive result, in search of a first win at Oxford in 56 years and a first of any description for 16 years after more near-misses than they would like in recent times.