Raging Bull: Can Oxford United gore Manchester City?
Background image: Steve Daniels, CC by 2.0
The EFL Cup is much maligned by Premier League and Championship alike. Teams rotate. Fixtures pile up. Most involved consider it a blessing in disguise to be eliminated as soon as possible. Oxford United buck that trend in 2019.
A stuttering start to the season skyrocketed after the Yellows knocked out West Ham United 4-0 at the Kassam. A nervy penalty victory over Sunderland set up a tie with Premier League Champions Manchester City. Can Karl Robinson’s men pull off the shock of the tournament, propel themselves into the semi-finals and potentially surpass the heroes who won the Milk Cup Final in 1986? Maybe. Maybe not.
Why They Can Do It
Oxford United fans did not hold out faith for promotion. A slow pre-season and inconsistent start to the campaign led to questions about Robinson’s tactics. The U’s were synonymous with attractive football under Michael Appleton. Robinson replicates his approach. However, poor defensive displays left them just outside the relegation zone.
The win against West Ham began a 16-game unbeaten streak. Oxford continued to fill the goal like a good little child's Christmas stocking and crucially tightened their back four. Josh Ruffels is a solid left-back who gives everything, Chris Cadden’s attacking play from right-back showcases how much Oxford will miss him when he joins Columbus Crew in January. John Mousinho is a veteran with plenty of experience. Rob Dickie partners him expertly, a bargain since signing from Reading. Alex Gorrin marshals superbly, breaking up play and moving the ball on to the attacking talents.
United always threaten the goal under Robinson. James Henry, languid and sanguine at times, defies his critics by constantly popping up with goals and assists, not to mention assuming the penalty duties. Tarique Fosu is the creative dynamo. The ex-Charlton winger finally made the left-wing role his own after seasons of inconsistency. His speed menaces every defender in League One while his increasingly effective end-product results in plenty of chances every game. Those chances are oft dispatched by Matty Taylor. Having struggled to make an impact at Bristol City, the Oxford-born striker returned to his roots where he is scoring consistently and at vital moments. It’s no wonder Oxford want to make his deal permanent as soon as possible.
Putting teams to the sword every week is the norm for Oxford at the moment. The passionate home support love every minute. With Claudio Bravo likely to start in goal, they’ll certainly expect to score. They faced Manchester City last year in this competition and are itching for revenge.
Why They Can’t
Despite a recent inconsistent patch, Manchester City are still a top team. Pep Guardiola's squad depth is astronomical. Old England stalwart Kyle Walker is certain to start, along with 35+ cap German international Ilkay Gungodan, Angelino and Bernardo Silva, to name a few. Barring injuries, the talented young Eric Garcia and Ian Poveda will be interspersed into the starting XI. Phil Foden should escape the shackles of the bench to start in his favoured No. 10 role. Foden starred in this fixture last season, grabbing a goal and being named Man of the Match. If he plays to his potential, expect the young Englishman to dominate the midfield. Oxford’s best hope is that Foden’s radar is not razor sharp due to his lack of match fitness. That didn't help last year but, if it is, Pep can call on Raheem Sterling, in-form Algerian Riyad Mahrez or combative Brazilian Fernandinho to turn the tide in City's favour.
Although their form in the Premier League is erratic, the Sky Blue's EFL Cup pedigree is top-drawer. The trophy holders are unbeaten in this competition since 2016. This year, the Citizens dispatched Championship high-flyers Preston in September at Deepdale, running out to a comfortable 0-3 victory. They followed up with a 3-1 dusting of Southampton in the fourth round. The deceptive score-line flattered the Saints. City remained firmly in control throughout. Pep Guardiola knows City are expected to win every match.
The EFL Cup is certainly his fourth priority but it could be the springboard to get the season back on track. With Champions League progression already secured, he can afford to devote more resources to Oxford than the League One side would prefer. Failure to defeat the Yellows won't sit well with the Arab Sheiks who own City. After last season's domestic treble, trips to Wembley are now a biannual prerequisite.
The stage is set. Oxford versus Manchester City promises to be one of the most intriguing games this season. England’s on-form team faces the English Champions. Karl Robinson, who masterminded MK Dons legendary 4-0 win against Manchester United, is keen to add Guardiola's scalp to his collection. Both teams play attractive football, easy-on-the-eye for the neutrals. It is genuinely an impossible game to predict. Oxford fans dream of another memorable night under the lights at the Kassam.