Stu says: Five observations following late Oxford heartbreak
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Ipswich Town drew 1-1 at Oxford United yesterday. STUART WATSON reflects on the action.
4.30pm. The best sound in football.
First, that initial roar of encouragement as yet another attack builds. Then, that magic moment of near silence as the ball makes it way to someone in a golden position. Time seems to slow... and then comes the explosion of noise.
Bersant Celina had finished off a slick move. The goal had been coming. Soon he was engulfed by team-mates in front of a bouncing away section. For a moment it's just one blue entity. Wes Burns was suddenly wearing a cap lost amidst the flailing limbs. It was unbridled joy in the spring sunshine.
4.55pm. A dagger to the heart. Luke McNally had headed home in the fifth and final minute of stoppage-time to deny the Blues what would have been a massive (and fully deserved) victory.
Town's magnificent army of 1,787 travelling fans left the Kassam Stadium trying to process the emotional rollercoaster they had just been on.
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This hurt just as much as the draw snatched from the jaws of victory at Carrow Road four years earlier.
Only football can provide such dramatic highs and lows within the space of a few minutes.
With Kayden Jackson's season ended by a hamstring tear, who would Kieran McKenna turn to up front? The answer was Joe Pigott.
It completely changed the dynamic of the attack. Instead of having a speedster constantly pressing high and running in behind, the Blues had a link forward whose first thought is always to drop deep.
Having your central striker do their best work 40+ yards away from the goal isn't ideal when you've got two No.10s to do that job.
There were some sharp touches and well-weighted forward passes. There were just as many occasions where the control was loose and things broke down though.
Just seven minutes into the second half, Pigott was replaced by Macauley Bonne (with Sam Morsy, only deemed fit enough for a cameo due to a hamstring issue, also coming on for Tom Carroll). Town looked far more balanced as a result.
“Strikers are confidence players and he’s probably not at his most confident,” said McKenna, when asked about Pigott's performance.
The former AFC Wimbledon man, who hasn't started back-to-back games since last August, just hasn't been able to get his Town career off the ground.
PATTERNS PAY OFF
Town, for the first time in a long time, have a go-to power play.
First, don't give the opposition time to get set. Second, a sharp interchange to get a wide man (usually Wes Burns) in behind. Third, keep your cool and cut the ball back for a late runner into the box.
As the game wore on, the Blues began to execute that well-drilled pattern more and more. Eventually it led to the breakthrough.
Conor Chaplin's outside of the boot pass up the line was sublime. Burns' cut-back was calm. Celina's run was timed to perfection. It was a goal straight off the training pitch.
Burns was electric. Having come in for some rough treatment early on, the Welshman dusted himself off and had the Oxford defence backing off in fear of his pace time-and-time again. He oozed confidence.
Oxford are the division's highest scorers. They had won five of their previous six. But Karl Robinson's men were on the ropes and seeing stars.
Town, unfortunately, weren't able to land the killer blow.
Tyreeq Bakinson's curling effort went inches wide. Other big counter opportunities were spurned.
Robinson admits he told his players to go down and receive treatment just so the team could catch their breath. It was a street smart move from the Liverpudlian.
A stop-start 10 minutes saw Ipswich's momentum lost. Oxford not only regrouped, but they'd got themselves five minutes of stoppage-time to work with.
Janoi Donacien made a vital lunging block in the box. Town, having looked so confident and in control, all of a sudden got a little edgy.
Up came keeper Simon Eastwood for a last-gasp corner. Cameron Burgess, who had played so well, was a split-second slow to react as the ball was delivered and McNally thumped home his header.
SEVEN TO GO...
The Blues are now unbeaten in 10. They've conceded just six goals in 16 games under McKenna. They're so exciting to watch.
No doubt about it, Town are going to be a force to be reckoned with next season. We were all desperately hoping that it was going to happen this season though.
The reason it won't is simple: They still haven't won a single game against a team in the current top seven (D7 L4).
Had the gap to sixth been cut to four points this weekend then it really would have felt like game on. Instead, it remains at six and there are now only 21 points left to play for.
Even if Town do fall short in their valiant attempts, it would be good to see them get a win or two against promotion chasers between now and May.
There's another opportunity to do that when fourth-place Plymouth visit Portman Road next Saturday. Then, over the Easter weekend, there are games against top-two Rotherham and Wigan.