Report - Tranmere Rovers 3-3 Oxford City
Tshimanga trio stuns Tranmere
Oxford City were made to settle for a draw against EFL League Two high-fliers Tranmere Rovers in a 3-3 draw rich with goals and late drama.
Kabby Tshimanga was the hat-trick hero as the Hoops recovered quickly from a first half goal to go into the break 1-1, going on to lead twice in a dramatic second half before eventually being pegged back for the final time in the 89th minute.
Mark Jones, having taken his squad up to Birkenhead on Friday in order to ensure they were well rested and prepared, had the luxury of naming the same side which triumphed over Hampton & Richmond a week earlier. His line-up consisted of goalkeeper Craig King, protected by centre halves' Joe Oastler and Frankie Musonda with Udoka Godwin-Malife and Ben Jefford at right- and left-back respectively. Reece Fleet, Josh Ashby, and Zac McEachran operated in the heart of midfield behind an attacking front three of Sam Nombe, Kabby Tshimanga, and Kyran Wiltshire.
The hosts were by far the quicker side to settle down, and began probing the City box without creating any significant threat. King had to be alert to push a deflected effort away in the third minute before James Norwood directed a header straight at him, but was otherwise comfortable as Tranmere quickly began to learn that their less auspicious opposition were unlikely to be a pushover.
The Hoops earned their first sight of goal in the 14th minute. Tshimanga went down under a clumsy challenge and Ashby's free kick picked out Musonda at the far post. The on-loan defender rose well to plant a header back across goal and into the back of the net, but his celebrations were quickly cut short by the assistant referee's flag.
Whilst Oxford City were demonstrating that they posed some threat on the break, they were yet to begin playing the slick passing game for which they have become known in the National League South. More direct attacking play, however, has its merits and nearly yielded an opener as an Ashby challenge in his own half was quickly converted into possession in the opposing penalty area - Nombe just lacking the strength to hold off his man. Moments later, Fleet was able to line up a speculative effort on goal which was deflected narrowly wide for a corner.
Many neutrals would have predicted, perhaps a touch naively, that the hosts would be the dominant force throughout the game and, although the Hoops were able to assert themselves, they still suffered through brief periods where they were locked in their own half. One such spell of pressure culminated in a weak 29th minute effort from Larnel Cole which, despite the forward finding himself in an almost ideal shooting position, was held well by King.
Five minutes later, however, the home side made no such mistakes in front of goal. It was in fact a rare mistake from City which led to the goal; Oastler and Musonda failing to deal with a ball over the top and allowing Connor Jennings to steal in and plant a confident finish past King.
Conceding seemed to almost settle the visitors down, giving rise to their best spell of the half and, crucially, a 39th minute equaliser.
Many will have questioned what on Earth Oastler was doing closing down his opposite number at the other end of the pitch, but that question was quickly answered when the captain tackled Steve McNulty, the loose ball falling perfectly into the path of Tshimanga. The striker reacted superbly, keeping his cool to round the 'keeper and slot into an unguarded net from a potentially tricky angle on his unfavoured left foot.
With five minutes of the half remaining, the Hoops looked to strike while the iron was hot and came agonisingly close to taking the lead right on the stroke of half time. A speculative long ball somehow found its way through to McEachran who, coming in from the right, drove a fizzing effort narrowly over the bar.
Going into half time, neither side could argue that the 1-1 scoreline was unjust with both teams having created chances of similar quality.
For the second half, the Hoops were boosted by the opportunity to shoot towards their own fans who, whilst drastically outnumbered, were intent on lending vocal support to their side.
The Hoops set the tone of the second half by dominating the opening exchanges. Tshimanga found himself free of the defence in the 49th minute, shooting weakly at Scott Davies, before Oastler came within a whisker of heading home from a corner.
With an hour played, Nombe raced in on goal only to be met by an onrushing Davies but Tshimanga went one better six minutes later.
There was a slight sense of de ja vu for City fans and, one presumes, the Tranmere defence when they once again lost possession on the edge of their own area. This time, Tshimanga had a lot more to do and rose to the challenge - beating two men before sending the goalkeeper the wrong way with a wonderfully disguised finish on his left.
Where many sides would have been intent on protecting their lead, City were far more interested in extending it. McEachran and Nombe combined to wreak havoc down the right wing, the former taking another chance to aim a shot at goal but dragging his effort wide. With 13 minutes to go, Fleet also lined up a shot from range which, whilst curling, was easily dealt with.
When the equaliser came, it was undeniably against the run of play. The Hoops half-cleared a 78th minute corner but found the ball quickly delivered back into their box where Jennings planted a header past King to level the scores.
While the cheers of the home fans reverberated around Prenton Park, City got back to work. Their response arrived within three minutes.
The three-man combination of Nombe, McEachran and Tshimanga once again proved too much for the Tranmere defence. Nombe was the man to get the ball at his feet on the edge of the six yard box and McEachran picked up the loose ball after the Milton Keynes loanee appeared to be fouled. A game of pinball ensued with the ball eventually falling to the unmarked Tshimanga who made no mistakes from point blank range to not only restore the Hoops' lead but complete his hattrick.
With a slender lead and ten minutes of normal time still to be played, City prepared to weather a storm. Tranmere, however, remained patient.
The first sign of trouble came in the 87th minute - the home side breaking from a City attack and sending Jennings free down the right channel. The forward, who was himself on a hattrick, opted to shoot early but found two strong hands from Craig King between him and the goal.
Unfortunately for the Hoops, heartbreak is never far away in the FA Cup. The 89th minute equaliser was at least worthy of levelling any game - a good cross from the right met by an even better first time finish from Norwood which nestled into the far bottom corner, leaving King with no chance.
With the scores level once more, things began to get a little heated and Norwood came close to transitioning very quickly from hero to zero. Nombe did well to win a throw deep in the opposing half, only to be catapulted head first into the hoardings when the ball was long gone. The forward sustained a head injury which ultimately ended his game, Eddie Jones replacing him in stoppage time, whilst the referee raised a number of eyebrows by waving a yellow card.
The Hoops survived the closing minutes, reverting to a somewhat more direct approach to clearing their lines than fans may be used to seeing, to take the tie to a replay at Marsh Lane.
The City side earned a standing ovation not only from their own fans but the home faithful as well, recognising a superb performance which could so easily have brought about a famous victory on another day.