Walsall 2 Oxford 1 - Report and pictures
Goals from Amadou Bakayoko and Erhun Oztumer saw Walsall secure a 2-1 victory over Oxford at the Banks’s Stadium – but it was Liam Roberts who was the real hero with the goalkeeper producing four outstanding saves to help his side secure the points.
The 23-year-old produced two outstanding saves to deny Karl Henry and Wes Thomas in the first half.
The glovesmen then repeated the trick after the interval with two equally spectacular stops to keep out Henry again and then Jon Obika.
Those moments aside, the clash proved and open and entertaining encounter with Bakayoko opening the scoring when he bundled in Luke Leahy’s cross.
Erhun Oztumer then doubled the Saddlers advantage with a delicate chip shortly after the interval.
And while Alex Mowatt did curl a free-kick past Liam Roberts on the hour – there was no other past the talented shot-stopper.
Boss Whitney plumped for youth when naming his starting line-up with academy graduates Liam Roberts, Liam Kinsella, Kory Roberts, Reece Flanagan and Bakayoko all given the chance to impress.
There was also a second Saddlers debut for George Dobson who returned to the Banks’s Stadium on a permanent deal last week after leaving Sparta Rotterdam.
It meant Whitney’s men lined up in a 4-1-4-1 system with Adam Chambers sitting, Erhun Oztumer on the right of midfield, Joe Edwards on the left and Bakayoko up front.
Oxford, under the guidance of Spanish boss Pep Clotet, lined up in a 4-4-2 formation with Jon Obika partnering Wes Thomas in attack.
In what was an open first 15 minutes, both teams came close to breaking with deadlock with the Saddlers threatening first after winning a free-kick wide on the right.
Oztumer whipped in the set-piece which Luke Leahy then did well to knock back into the danger area.
But the ball then seemed to hit Jon Guthrie just yards from goal and with nobody else on hand to nod it home, Simon Eastwood was able to claim.
Oxford responded with Obika meeting a deep free-kick which Liam Roberts did well to tip over the bar.
Overall, the Saddlers had started well with Whitney’s men pressing the visitors high up the pitch and Bakayoko working tirelessly to ensure his team defended from the front.
But that all changed as the clock ticked past the 20 minute mark with the visitors suddenly dominating possession and with Walsall hugely indebted to keeper Roberts for two outstanding saves.
First, the Us almost broke the deadlock when Jack Payne’s sweeping cross found James Henry in the box.
The former Wolves winger then did well to cut-inside Leahy. But with the goal at his mercy he then saw a fierce low drive brilliantly smothered by Roberts.
Minutes later and the keeper was producing more heroics with Alex Mowatt’s cross powerfully met by Thomas with the Banks’s Stadium seemingly waiting for the net bulge.
Yet Roberts, with the strongest of arms, produced a spectacular diving stop to push the ball away.
With his team being overrun, Whitney made a tactical switch with Oztumer joining Bakayoko up front as the Saddlers matched Oxford’s 4-4-2 system.
And just moments later they got their noses in front when Oztumer caught the U’s defence napping with a quick free-kick.
That bright thinking allowed Leahy to hit the byline with the full-back sending in a cross which Bakayoko bundled home from close range for his seventh of the campaign.
Oxford pressed for an equaliser before half-time, but while they sent in a number if crosses, Guthrie and Kory Roberts marshalled the defence well to get everything away.
Walsall made a change at the break with Flanagan, who had moved out to the right of midfield, being replaced by Kieron Morris.
And it was Whitney’s men who came flying out the blocks following the interval with Oztumer doubling their advantage just minutes after the re-start.
After Leahy had sent a long ball forward, Oztumer battled with John Moushino to claim a ball he had no right to win.
And with Eastwood off his line, Walsall’s top scorer produced a delicate chip to lift the ball over the keeper and into the net.
It wasn’t until shortly past the hour mark that either side truly threatened again but it Walsall who pushed forward in a bid to put the game to bed.
Edwards did brilliantly to win the ball from Canice Carroll in the box before teeing up Dobson who saw his strike blocked with a last-ditch challenge from Moushino.
But the ball then fell for Bakayoko who volleyed towards goal only to see that effort also blocked by a defender.
Oxford pulled a goal back in the 70th minute after Dobson had fouled Alex Mowatt on the edge of the box.
The former Leeds man dusted himself down to take the free-kick and curled in an unstoppabler strike from 20-yards.
Lifted by the goal, the U’s then created two good opportunities to pull level only to be again be denied by more brilliance from Liam Roberts.
First Obika raced through one-on-one only for the keeper to race off his line and brilliantly win the ball by diving at the striker’s feet.
Then just moments later, Henry hit a fierce effort from 25-yards that looked destined for the top corner. But again Roberts flung himself across the goal to acrobatically push the ball away.
With Walsall now defending for their lives, Oxford began enjoying a lot of possession in and around the Saddlers box.
But with the home side defending bravely, it wasn’t until deep into stoppage time that they truly threatened again.
Following a hopeful delivery into the box, Obika flicked the ball into the path of Agon Mehmeti.
But just yards from goal the substitute fired wide with the Saddlers then holding on to claim a huge three points.
Walsall: Walsall: Roberts, Kinsella, K. Roberts, Guthrie, Leahy, Chambers, Dobson (Cuvelier 77), Flanagan (Mrris 46), Edwards, Oztumer (T. Roberts 85), Bakayoko.
Subs not used: Gillespie, Devlin, Kouhyar, Jackson.
Oxford: Eastwood, Carroll, Martin, Mousinho, Tiendalli, Henry (van Kessell 79), Mowatt, Ruffels, Payne (Napa 68), Thomas (Mehmeti 75), Obika.
Subs not used: Shearer, Williamson, Dickie, Fernandez.