A miserable start saw the visitors fall behind, but a late revival turned the tides on the south coast.
Story of the match
Plymouth Argyle started the match with incredible desire. The Pilgrims stroked the ball beautifully around their home with incisive passing which asked questions of Oxford United’s defensive discipline.
Young winger Panutche Camara showed a ubiquitous threat to his counterparts in the early stages, utilising his pace not only to bear down on goal but also to defend from the front by getting across well to block clearances and potential counterattacks.
The sprightly Bissau-Guinean reaped the rewards of his fast start after just 12 minutes when he rounded off a rapid break by smashing Ryan Hardie’s inch-perfect cross into the roof of the net, leaving a hapless Jack Stevens in its wake.
Arygle’s domination continued, and they looked good value for a second goal with each passing attack. Scotsman Hardie was a real handful as he looked to create an opportunity for his colleagues. They came close to doubling their advantage around the half-hour mark, when Hardie danced past the defence wide on the right flank and fizzed a teasing ball across the box. Communication between the awaiting forwards seemed to break down and United scrambled to clear from six yards.
Very little action was taking place down the other end, but Oxford still drew level on one of their few advances. A long free-kick was played deep into the box, and Dan Agyei helped it across the mouth of goal before 27-year-old Josh Ruffels bundled home the equaliser. It marked the first occasion that a meeting between these clubs in League One has seen both sides find the net.
The U’s almost found themselves in front on the stroke of halftime. Another scramble in front of Michael Cooper’s goal forced the youthful goalkeeper into a sensational double stop to keep the sides level-pegging, and the move was eventually brought to a total halt when an attacker was adjudged to have handled the ball.
Plymouth began the second period in the same way they started the first; playing with immense intensity and operating a high-pressing system, which caused United some uncomfortable scenarios shortly after the restart.
However, the large hole left in midfield was there to be exploited, and Oxford should have punished their hosts just five minutes into the half when Marcus McGuane’s sliced effort found teammate James Henry at the far post. Henry got it all wrong and blazed his close-range effort high above the crossbar.
If anything, this seemed to benefit Oxford as they kicked into rhythm in order to redeem the squandered opportunity. Several shots were fired towards goal throughout a lengthy spell in front of net, but they were each blocked before they had the chance to test ‘keeper Cooper.
Cooper was called on to save Argyle again on the hour mark, when, unsighted, he produced a brilliant reaction stop on a looping header which was looking like nestling in the netting behind the far post.
Plymouth eventually broke down again, though. With 15 minutes left to play, substitute Sean Clare found space deep on the right wing after receiving a pass from Sam Long. Clare crafted an opening with a delightful ball back inside to Long, who finished off the move with a low finish from close-range.
Before long, Oxford had doubled their lead. Argyle defender Will Aimson brought Agyei down in the penalty area and Olamide Shodipo made no mistake in converting the spot kick.
Incredibly, two minutes later, the hosts were awarded a penalty of their own, as a darting run from substitute Byron Moore was brought to an abrupt end by Oxford captain Elliott Moore. Luke Jephcott stepped up to the plate and thundered his 11th league goal of the term into the top-left corner.
It proved to be too little, too late for Plymouth. The result extends Oxford’s brilliant form to eight matches without loss, and they leapfrog the Pilgrims into 15th in Sky Bet League One. Plymouth will go into the new year lingering just four points above the relegation zone.
Takeaway from the game
Forwards fantastic, defenders disorganised
Plymouth Argyle looked as though they would score each time they crossed the halfway line, such is the craftiness of creators like Ryan Hardie. Oxford were left to guess on many occasions, and had to dig deep to keep the threat at bay.
It was a different story down the other end, however. Goalkeeper Michael Cooper was the saving grace for a misshapen defence that oft resorted to desperate clearances – some of which were collected by the opposition and brought straight back towards goal.
Man of the match
Michael Cooper – Plymouth Argyle
Although on the wrong end of the result, Plymouth goalkeeper Cooper had a mesmeric game between the sticks. Often left to pick up the pieces missed by his ailing defence, the 21-year-old produced several incredible saves which, at the time, kept his side’s lead intact.