Oxford United were punished by a ruthless Crewe Alexandra side as they were sent home from the Alexandra Stadium pointless. Chris Wilder's men had numerous opportunities to trouble the scoreboard, but three clinical finishes gave the hosts a winning advantage.
It was evident in the opening stages that both sides were looking to play their football, with Crewe rarely looking to move the ball in the air. This made for an attractive match to watch and the sort of contest that so often brings out the best in United. Alfie Potter was the first to utilise the space on offer, testing Steve Phillips with a dipping volley from range. Simon Heslop also had the home goalkeeper scrambling across his goal, twice driving wide of the left-hand upright. However, United needed to be alert at the other end, with Dave Artell flashing a header wide of Ryan Clarke's goal, narrowly missing out on repeating his opening goal from last season's contest.
The home side were being offered plenty of room to stroke the ball around in, with Shaun Miller almost taking advantage on the twenty minute mark. The striker beat Michael Duberry but was denied by Clarke's fine sprawling save. Despite the impressive passing football on offer, it was with a double slice of fortune that Crewe took the lead. A pass from deep looked harmless enough, until it was sliced into the path of Danny Shelley by a United defender. The winger looked as if he may have been marginally offside when the initial pass was played, but he advanced on goal as the linesman's flag stayed down. Duberry looked to have saved United with a last-ditch block, but Crewe kept the danger alive, with Shelley releasing Miller to thump home off the underside of the crossbar.
Seven minutes later, Miller doubled his tally. The striker has always impressed against United with both his link-up play and his ability to find space in the area. This time Miller started a move of high quality, which saw Ashley Westwood burst onto a backheel on the right flank, before crossing for Miller to side-foot past Clarke. An evenly contested half had quickly become a nightmare for United, who were struggling to capitalise on the possession they had in Crewe's half. Too much football was played in harmless areas in front of the Crewe defence, with the forward passes lacking quality in the absence of Peter Leven. In contrast, Crewe's young team were revelling in the space afforded to them by United's midfield and were thoroughly enjoying their afternoon. United nearly sowed some seeds of doubt before the interval, but after Asa Hall's long-range effort was parried by Phillips, Deane Smalley was denied by a fine block from Adam Dugdale. If the name appears familiar, yes, he is and no, I don't want to talk about how well he played just yet.
United appeared shell-shocked and short of ideas, with the hosts increasing in confidence with every passing move, Miller in particular impressing the 3680 crowd.
If given the time in which to play, Crewe are one of the better sides in League Two and judging by the initial response in the second half, Wilder told his players in no uncertain terms to make the home side's life a little more uncomfortable. Paul McLaren began to steam into tackles in the middle third, allowing Oxford to build some pressure on the home goal. Liam Davis was another whose influence was increasing and it was his cross that saw Potter's downward header blocked by Phillips. The diminutive winger was in the chances again moments later, this time firing over the bar having outpaced the Crewe defence.
United were made to pay for these missed chances moments later as the midfield tempo dropped momentarily. This was all Luke Murphy needed to set Ajay Leitch-Smith clear, with the striker latching on to the pass before slotting under the advancing Clarke. 3-0 and now United really did have a mountain to climb.
Looking for an immediate response, Potter was once more denied by Phillips, as his low drive was smothered by the Crewe stopper. However, he was powerless to prevent United's next opportunity. Josh Payne, a replacement for Heslop, drove at the heart of the Crewe defence, jinking in and out, before lifting a cross for Liam Davis to nod home at the back post.
Moments later, Davis was inches away from doubling his tally as his low drive thumped the inside of the post, with Smalley unable to react quickly enough to turn the rebound home. There was further frustration to come for the travelling fans, with numerous balls being delivered into the penalty area, without a dark blue shirt in the right place to capitalise.
This was another frustrating afternoon for Oxford United. Without ever really hitting full stride, the visitors created enough chances to get something from the game. United had 60% of the ball, as well as 22 efforts on goal, compared to the home side's 7. However, the clinical finishing of Crewe was the difference at the end of the game. Whilst Jake Wright and Liam Davis were the pick of the bunch for Oxford United, Shaun Miller and Adam Dugdale stand out in the battle for the man of the match award. Miller was a constant threat to the Oxford defence, whilst Dugdale got in the way of almost everything the visitors had to offer. Despite Dario Gradi's nice words about Oxford's performance, the 518 away fans headed for home disappointed.
Chris Wilder made two changes from the Aldershot game, with Deane Smalley replacing the injured James Constable and Asa Hall coming in for Peter Leven. Damien Batt replaced Andy Whing shortly after the interval, with John Payne replacing Heslop midway through the half. Finally, Jon-Paul Pittman was given a chance to shine towards the end of the game, replacing the injured Lewis Guy.
Referee Graham Salisbury performed well, allowing the game to flow. There were few major decisions to make and those that were required, he judged correctly. Asa Hall and Lewis Guy were booked for late challenges, whilst Harry Davis saw yellow for halting an Oxford attack late in the game.
The victory lifts Crewe to 20th position in the table, on six points. Meanwhile, United drop to 13th, having won two, drawn two and lost two. To complete the neutrality, Wilder's side also have a goal difference of zero. Crawley moved to the top of the table with a thumping 4-1 victory over Bristol Rovers, whilst Rotherham dropped back after throwing away the lead twice, to go down 3-2 at the County Ground. Morecambe complete the automatic promotion places, despite conceding a last minute equaliser to Bradford City. At the other end, Plymouth Argyle remain rooted to the foot of the table, after a 2-1 defeat at Oxford's next opponents, Burton Albion. Hereford's late win against Dagenham and Redbridge was not enough to lift them out of the relegation zone. League Two remains a very tight division at this stage, with only five points separating 1st and 15th.