U’s ready to take on the Robins

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At 12 noon on Saturday, Oxford United will face Swindon Town at the Kassam Stadium in the imaginatively named “A420 derby.” The derby between the two sides has been fierce since the early 1980′s and intensified due to the regularity of meeting between the sides, plus their geographical proximity throughout the decade.

Swindon fans’ vandalism of Oxford’s stadium means there is absolutely no love lost between the two sides. They covered the bronze Ox which stands outside the Kassam pink – Oxford then used it to help raise money for a Breast Cancer charity – as well as burning the club’s initials ‘STFC’ into the pitch before last August’s meeting.

The league history is overwhelmingly in favour in terms of Swindon Town with 23 wins and 81 goals scored to Oxford’s 11 wins and 57 goals scored. There have also been 20 draws between the sides over the years.

Oxford have never faced Swindon in the league at the Kassam Stadium. The only time they have played each other at the Kassam was in the second Round of the FA Cup in December 2002. The game ended 1-0 as controversial striker Jefferson Louis scored the winning goal that day to send The U’s faithful into utter delirium. The goal, in truth, was a fluke. Louis’ flick on went straight in after Steve Basham’s run bamboozled Bart Griemink in front of the Oxford Mail Stand. Louis’ celebrations post-match have to be seen to be believed as he ran round the home changing room naked after Oxford were drawn against Arsenal at Highbury in the next round.

That was then, this is now. I, as an Oxford fan, am not confident going into Saturday’s game. Oxford’s current form has been sketchy of late with nine points from a possible fifteen in their last five games and the disappointing 1-1 draw with Macclesfield at home last weekend leaving them seventh in the table. Macclesfield had lost eight consecutive matches on the road before that.

Swindon on the other hand, have won nine games on the trot and the Wiltshire club have jumped from seventh to first since Christmas. Paolo Di Canio, who has divided opinion, appears to be working his magic with the side after spending big in January, signing Paul Benson, Luke Rooney and Lee Cox as well as Ronan Murray and Derek Boating on loan from Ipswich and Arsenal respectively.

They also failed in signing Oxford’s top goalscorer, James Constable. Known to Oxford fans as “Beano” – a nickname given to him in his younger years due to his alleged likeness to the famous Heinz product. Oxford accepted a bid, but Constable decided against even travelling up, re-affirming his legend status at the club. The Yellows’ number nine decided the last meeting with Swindon in August, netting a brace as Oxford won 2-1 at the County Ground.

This followed comments from Di Canio claiming Constable was a Swindon fan. Constable does in fact support Tottenham and after the embarrassing error, Di Canio backtracked in the post-match press conference claiming he had “wrong information.”

Oxford’s key man for the game this Saturday would have been Peter Leven. He’s scored a halfway line winner against Port Vale, a brilliant free-kick against Cheltenham from 30-odd yards as well as a curling effort against Plymouth from the corner of the 18 yard box to name a few. If the Oxford faithful are to be believed, Peter Leven does what he wants. But Peter Leven cannot guard against injury. He’ll miss the game with a shoulder injury which is a massive blow. Simon Heslop is fighting to be fit, but if he doesn’t recover in time, manager Chris Wilder will have to choose between Mark Wilson, Asa Hall and Adam Chapman to partner the tireless Andy Whing and Lee Holmes in a midfield three.

The possible inclusion of Chapman is an interesting one. He was man of the match in the Conference play-off final in 2010, but the midfielder’s promising career was thrown into turmoil after he was jailed for causing the death of 77-year old Tom Bryan by dangerous driving. Since his release in September, he has had an injury plagued six months. Earlier this week, Chapman was recalled from an impressive monthly loan spell at Newport and now he has match sharpness back, he could be Oxford’s secret weapon against Swindon. Oxford lack a free-kick taker in Leven’s absence and Chapman looks the perfect replacement.

For a side that went 22 games without a clean sheet last season, Oxford have had 11 shutouts this term which puts them fifth in the clean sheet table, while opponents Swindon are first with 15. This is a marked improvement, based upon up by astute signings from Wilder during pre-season.

Former Chelsea and Leeds centre-back Michael Duberry divided fans’ opinion when he arrived in the summer from St. Johnstone. His apparent lack of pace worried some fans, but his commanding presence has given the Oxford back line confidence this season. When he was injured in November, Oxford lost every game which further proved his importance to the side. He has hit a purple patch with four goals in his last four games, the only problem is that three of them have been in his own goal! That includes what he dubbed on Twitter as the “imperfect Hat-trick.” A left-foot own goal, a headed own goal followed by a right-foot finish in the correct net. Despite this, Duberry remains a cult hero at the Kassam. I doubt many other players could get away with scoring so many own goals in a debut season and still be loved by the fans of a club.

Oxford usually play a 4-3-3 but switched to a 4-4-2 for periods against Macclesfield. The weakness of 4-3-3 is that the system is susceptible to attacks down the wings, which could prove crucial as  Swindon’s key man will be left winger Matt Ritchie. The former Portsmouth player moved to Swindon in the summer and has scored 10 goals as well as adding 10 assists, staking his claim to be League Two′s player of the season. Oxford will need to change to a 4-5-1 when not in possession with the wingers tracking the Swindon full backs. It is extremely important for the home side to have a midfielder move across and help cover the full back to help nullify Ritchie’s threat.

As an Oxford fan, a loss would be devastating for the fans. The fact of the matter is, Swindon are the better side and there is a reason they are sat at the top of the league. On paper Swindon should win, but derby games never stick to the script. 1973 was the last time Oxford won at the County Ground and the only season they’ve beaten the Robins twice in the same campaign. Oxford ended their 38-year wait for victory in Wiltshire earlier this season, can they achieve a famous double?

Written by Youcef El Barhdadi, We Are Going Up’s Oxford United blogger

Youcef tweets at @yelbarhdadi

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