Trophy run ends in a five-goal thriller at the Kenny
LUTON TOWN 2
OXFORD UNITED 3
Mpanzu OG 70
Att: 6,901 (742 away)
The Hatters’ Checkatrade Trophy run fell agonisingly one fence short of Wembley as League One side Oxford won a thriller of a semi-final by the odd goal in five under the Kenilworth Road lights tonight.
The Sky cameras certainly had plenty of entertainment for their viewers – not to mention the near 7,000 crowd inside the ground – as Nathan Jones’ side fought back from two goals down to level with seven minutes left, only for last season’s beaten finalists to grab a late winner through the impressive Marvin Johnson.
Phil Edwards had given the visitors a tenth-minute lead, which was doubled with 20 minutes to go when Johnson’s cross was deflected past Hatters keeper Matt Macey, the sponsors’ man of the match, by Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu.
Isaac Vassell’s ninth goal of the season dragged the Town back into the game three minutes later, then Danny Hylton headed in his 20th of the most prolific campaign of his career to level things against the side he left last summer to move to Bedfordshire.
Kenilworth Road was rocking with the Town fans in great voice, but Johnson’s 85th-minute strike brought an end to any celebrations and ensured the run ended in disappointment, but with plenty of pride.
Jones had made two changes from the team that drew 1-1 with Plymouth on Saturday, Johnny Mullins returning to the starting line-up to face the side he led out at Wembley in the final of this competition last season, while Jake Gray came into midfield.
The Hatters started brightly, hitting the woodwork in the fourth minute when Mpanzu and Hylton combined to set up Gray, but the ex-Crystal Palace man’s volley into the turf was tipped onto the bar by visiting keeper Simon Eastwood, and his defenders cleared for a corner.
The same players combined from that too, this time Gray crossing for Hylton to get a flicked near-post effort on target, but Eastwood was well positioned to claim.
Ryan Ledson had the visitors’ first effort on goal in the ninth minute, but the former Everton youngster’s low shot was deflected wide.
From the resulting corner, however, the U’s had the lead, Liam Sercombe’s low shot triggering a spell of pinball in the Town six-yard box and Edwards, who was on the ground, scooped the ball into the back of the net.
The Town’s response was good, Glen Rea’s left foot shot deflected just wide as they went in search of an immediate equaliser with a couple of quick corners, then – on 13 minutes – Gray cut the ball back from the right byline, but Hylton couldn’t direct his deft volley on target.
A delightful bit of interplay between Hylton and Cook created a chance for Mpanzu, whose powerful volley flew over Eastwood’s bar, but Jones’ side were well on top in everything but scoreline.
The Hatters were committed in the challenge too, Rea thundering into one tackle early on with Chris Maguire that ended with the ball flying into the crowd to be headed back by an agile fan, then Cook and Jack Senior followed suit in combat with Sercombe.
Oxford went close through centre-half Chey Dunkley, and a 20th-minute John Lundstram shot was saved by Macey, who then had to be off his line quickly to block an effort from Maguire after a rapid break down the Oxford right.
Gray had another crack at goal on 27 minutes, but dragged his shot wide, before Macey was called into action to make two smart saves, first to keep out top scorer Kane Hemmings and then to deny Edwards, who was afforded a free header from a right-wing corner.
In an entertaining game that was flowing from end-to-end, Oxford were starting to boss possession and Edwards – always an outlet on the right – crashed a 36th-minute shot over the bar from distance.
Hylton was determined to drag his side back into the game, trying his luck from fully 30 yards before Eastwood had to race off his line to punch a dangerous cross from Alan Sheehan away after Mpanzu’s initial shot had been charged down.
Macey was having an inspired game in the Town goal, and the Arsenal loanee had to turn away another effort from a corner, this time from Dunkley, before getting his body right behind a 25-yard free-kick from Hemmings and watching a piledriver from Sercombe fly over his bar as half-time approached.
Jones made a change at the break, taking off left-back Senior and bringing Luke Gambin into midfield at the tip of the diamond, Mpanzu dropping into the holding role and Rea to centre-half, with Sheehan switching to full-back.
The Hatters had a glorious chance to level on 54 minutes when Gambin’s skill created space in midfield and, after trading passes with Mpanzu, he set the overlapping Sheehan up to cross from the left. Hylton couldn’t control the Irishman’s delivery, but Cook was racing in behind him and volleyed at goal, but Eastwood saved well.
With their tails up, the Town went down the right next with Vassell spinning Curtis Nelson and racing into the penalty box, but the U’s managed to clear his dangerous cross-shot.
The ex-Truro striker was next to go close – the closest yet – when he snuck round the back to head a Sheehan corner at goal on 63 minutes, but Marvin Johnson cleared from right on the line.
Rea had to get back to deny a rampaging Sercombe before Oxford doubled their lead in the 70th minute, and it was a fortuitous goal when it came – Johnson, the defensive hero one moment, seeing his right-wing cross loop up off Mpanzu’s boot and over Macey into the far corner.
The Town were back in business two minutes later though and it was Vassell who got a deserved goal, pouncing when Eastwood couldn’t hold Gray’s powerful low shot and spinning to tuck his effort through a thicket of defenders’ legs on the line to halve the deficit.
Jones’ men were giving it everything, but Macey made yet another brilliant save – this one with his studs – to deny Lundstram with 15 minutes left, before parrying a right-footed shot from Sercombe.
Either side of the latter, Johnson fired a shot wide of either post – but the Hatters were soon level, and who else could it be than that man Hylton?
Sheehan hit an outswinging left-wing corner that Rea headed towards goal, and the Town top scorer did the rest, diverting the ball past Eastwood with a nod of the head inside the six-yard box.
Parity lasted for just two minutes, Johnson taking a short-right wing corner and trading passes with Sercombe before cutting inside on his left foot to arc a terrific shot inside the far post for 3-2.
The Hatters poured forward in search of another equaliser, and the best chance came when Mullins played substitute Jack Marriott in on the right side of the area, but Eastwood pulled off another save to deny him.
And despite the Town throwing everything at yet another side from the division above, including keeper Macey for a set-piece right at the death, the sixth higher level team Jones’ boys have faced in this competition proved one fence too high to jump.
TOWN: Macey, Justin (Cuthbert 90+4) Mullins, Sheehan ©, Senior (Gambin 46), Rea, Mpanzu, Gray (Marriott 80), Cook, Hylton, Vassell. Subs: Potts, Smith, Lee, King (GK)
Yellows: Rea, Mullins
OXFORD: Eastwood, Skarz, Lundstram, Nelson, Sercombe, Maguire (Rothwell 27), Hemmings, Edwards, Ledson, Johnson, Dunkley. Subs: Ribeiro, Ruffels, Long, Stevens, Carroll.