Report - Oxford City 1-0 Hemel Hempstead
Henderson Heads City to victory
In-form Hemel Hempstead were left to rue an early penalty miss as Oxford City fought their way to a hard-earned victory at Marsh Lane.
The Hoops were fired up for the game – their second of three consecutive home fixtures – having conceded a late goal to draw 1-1 with Bath City earlier in the week. Mark Jones made two changes following that game with Jefferson Louis returning in place of Kaiman Anderson and Matt Peake-Pijnen deputising for the suspended Freddie Grant. New signing Ezra Forde was also handed a glimpse of first team football, joining fellow youngster Sami Khawaja on the bench.
City almost got off to the worst start possible as, after just three minutes, Hemel Hempstead were awarded a penalty following a Stephane Ngamvoulou challenge. The visitors' captain Jordan Parkes stepped up to face the imposing figure of Craig Hill in the City goal, opting for power rather than precision as he blazed his effort over the bar. Having not been needed for the spot kick, Hill was called into action 6 minutes later as Hemel worked the ball to the byline and played an easy ball square. The 'keeper was characteristically quick off of his line to save with his legs.
City made their first meaningful foray into the Hemel half on the quarter hour mark, a long throw into the box half cleared and launched back into the box. Louis did well to control the ball with his chest but saw his shot blocked at point blank range.
Despite his earlier penalty miss, Parkes was once again trusted with a dead ball situation – a free kick from a good position 30 yards out. His shot had both power and swerve, forcing yet another excellent save from Hill as took flight to push the ball around the post. Moments later Hemel survived a handball shout in the center circle and launched an attack down their left, getting a good ball into the box which was met by a looping header which Hill gathered easily.
The final 10 minutes of the half saw what was arguably City's best period of the game. Carvalho, making his third start since arriving from Kettering, linked up well with Fleet on the edge of the area. Unfortunately, Fleet's attempted backheel failed to find its man. Peake-Pijnen was however able to regain possession, finding Ngamvoulou who was quickly hauled down. City ran what was clearly a training ground routine, squaring the ball to the edge of the area before chipping the ball to Carvalho out wide. The winger's cross was half cleared, giving Fleet the opportunity to put his laces through the ball with two powerful, goalbound efforts which were both blocked.
It was another free kick which gave City the breakthrough they needed in the 38th minute. Ngathe produced a deft spin to beat his man before being taken down by Arnaud Mendy. Scott Davies stepped up to deliver a curling ball into the box and, although the initial cross didn't find a City head, Jean Niate was able to clip a return ball straight to the head of Lee Henderson for the the City skipper to nod home with ease.
The goal proved to be the last significant action of the half, allowing City to go into the break with a lead for the first time since their New Year's Day clash with St Albans – a game they went on to win 2-1.
Hemel's start to the second half was as bright as the first as Parkes came closer still to finding the back of the net with a rasping effort from range. The travelling support's celebrations were premature but Hill will still have been grateful to see it pass just wide of his left hand post.
Mark Jones had made two changes during the break, Anderson and Khawaja replacing Ngamvoulou and Carvalho, and the two new additions quickly got themselves into the game as Khawaja fed a neat through ball ahead of Anderson. The covering defender did well to get a foot to the ball but in doing so forced 'keeper Jamie Butler into a sliding block which prevented the ball from going out for a corner. The resulting throw-in found Anderson with a surprising amount of time and space in the box but his left footed effort was ambitious and sailed harmlessly over the bar.
The half time changes had also spelled a change in shape for City, lining up in a 5-3-2 as Poku joined Henderson and Niate in the center of the defense. This allowed Ngathe a little more freedom to press forwards and he did exactly that, riding a challenge before finding the Hoops' third and final substitute, Mike Fondop, on the edge of the area. The striker was able to get away his first shot of the game, aiming for the keeper's near post, but saw his effort pass narrowly wide.
With the increased numbers in the hosts' defence, Hemel were having a tough time creating chances from open play but continued to threaten from set pieces. Matt Saunders should have levelled the scores in the 57th minute as a corner found him almost unmarked at the far post. The midfielder appeared surprised to see the ball reach him, heading over from just a couple of yards. Michael Thalassitis did somewhat better with a similar opportunity just two minutes later but his powerful header narrowly missed the bottom corner.
A 65th minute free kick broke the run of Hemel corners, instead providing Parkes with another opportunity to test Craig Hill. Whilst the kick was a good 40 yards from goal, the lack of a wall proved too tempting for a player who clearly liked a shot from distance. His effort once again moved a lot in the air but Hill as equal to it, using two strong hands to divert the ball over the bar. It was the last significant contribution from Parkes who had somehow come closer to scoring with each of his three long-range efforts than he had with the early penalty!
The Blues would have been forgiven for thinking the main danger had passed but yet another corner nearly resulted in a goal. This time it was Peake-Pijnen who stood in the way of an equaliser as he stole in front of Hill to clear a goalbound header. His upfield punt almost sparked a breakaway as Anderson gave chase but Butler was quickly off his line to gather.
With 20 minutes remaining City were almost the architects of the own demise, confusion between Davies and Niate allowing Hemel to put a ball into the box with Hill out of position. Their blushes were spared as the cross failed to find its target and the following effort from range proved harmless.
With 15 minutes remaining the hosts had their best chance to make the game relatively safe as another good ball from Khawaja allowed Fondop to stretch his legs. The big striker did well to hold off his man but was off balance as he shot, resulting in an unusually tame effort which the 'keeper was able to gather at the second attempt.
Whilst Hemel continued to knock gentle on City's door, the final quarter of an hour passed with little incident as Henderson and Niate dominated in the air. The referee's whistle eventually hailed a return to winning ways, making it 5 points in three tough games for the Hoops. This result also marks Craig Hill's first clean sheet for the club. The young 'keeper has turned a lot of heads since replacing Ty Belford in the City net, quickly building a reputation as an excellent shot-stopper and rightly being given much of the credit for the last three results.
Oxford City: Hill, Ngathe, Peake-Pijnen, Davies, Henderson (c), Niate, Carvalho (Anderson H/T), Poku, Louis (Fondop 72), Fleet, Ngamvoulou (Khawaja H/T).
Unused Sub: Forde