Blackburn Rovers booked their place in the fifth-round of the FA Cup after easing past Oxford United 3-0 at the Kassam Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Midfielder Ben Marshall scored twice for the Championship club, one from the penalty spot and the other with a wonderful free-kick, either side of debutant Tony Watt’s piercing strike on the stroke of half-time against the League Two hosts.
Michael Appleton’s United; who were the giant killers in the third-round of the competition after knocking out Premier League side Swansea City 3-2 earlier this month, simply weren’t allowed the space and time to replicate their cup heroics as star players Kemar Roofe and Liam Sercombe were well pressured and maintained throughout the entire 90 minutes.
The gossip surrounding the game before kick-off was all about the imminent departure of striker Jordna Rhodes’ from Blackburn, with the Scotland international set to join Championship leaders Middlesbrough for a reported £9m after leaving the team’s hotel on Friday night.
However Rhode’s replacement for the day; Simeon Jackson sparkled in a rare opportunity to lead Blackburn’s assault on Oxford, with the Canadian international terrorising Oxford’s defender with his drop of the shoulder and burst of pace.
As both sides began to find their feet inside the early stages at the Kassam, it was Jackson who flew out of the traps the quickest and broke through on goal, with Oxford centre-half Johnny Mullins unable to keep up as he brought down the pacey forward inside just four minutes.
The defender was fortunate to stay on the pitch as referee Andy Davies decided against showing the former Rotherham United man an instant red card, instead bringing out a yellow with fellow centre-half pairing Jake Wright adjudged to be the last man back.
From the resulting free-kick, Marshall’s curled effort was marginally wide of Sam Slocombe’s right-hand post in the Oxford goal.
Seven minutes on the clock; with Blackburn dominating possession, Corry Evans then strode towards the edge of the penalty box before seeing his audacious 30-yard long-range drive sail well wide of the target.
Just five minutes later; the away fans were calling for referee Davies to again dismiss Mullins by presenting him his second yellow card of the match after hauling down the lively Jackson once more, but the official settled for a final warning. This time Elliott Bennett couldn’t benefit from the consequential set piece.
The game’s first clear cut chance didn’t occur until the 21st minute as a towering header from Elliott Ward was well saved by the diving Slocombe after the Blackburn defender powerfully met Craig Conway’s floated corner.
Ward’s defensive partner; captain Grant Hanley, then fancied his chances of breaking the deadlock a few minutes later, but his optimistic shot from 25-yards out was deflected and easily collected by a thankful Slocombe.
After the United ‘keeper distributed the ball neatly; Oxford counterattacked and carved out their first goalscoring opportunity of the afternoon, with midfielder Sercombe finally calling Rovers shot stopper Jason Steele into action with a stinging shot from the edge of his area.
Winger Callum O’Dowda; who has been reportedly linked with a January move to fellow Championship outfit Derby County, then saw his half-volley effort expertly blocked by the onrushing Tommy Spurr as the U’s began to finally find their feet in this tie.
That was all except Joe Skarz. The Oxford left-back had a brief lapse of concentration as he conceded a clumsy challenge on Jackson to gift the away side a penalty after 35 minutes.
Marshall stepped up confidently to bury his third goal of the season past Slocombe and fire Paul Lambert’s men in front.
Just three minutes later; Blackburn newboy Tony Watt, who joined on loan from Charlton Athletic just 24 hours before this FA Cup encounter, almost doubled his new club’s advantage. He courageously fended off numerous challenges from he likes of John Lundstram and Sercombe in the heart of Oxford’s midfield to play through Bennett, who in turn laid the ball back to Watt before seeing his first time shot palmed over by an alert Slocombe.
As two additional minutes were held up; Blackburn did double their lead and struck at a pivotal time in the game to silence the home crowd heading into the interval.
Ex-Celtic forward Watt again was the instigator; pickpocketing Lundstram of possession before driving forward and firing a low drive into the far corner from 20 yards.
After neither side decided to make substitutions at the halfway stage; it was Blackburn who were happy to simply play the ball around the pitch as they held a two-goal advantage, whilst their high pressing tactics soon halted any of Oxford’s flair players on the odd offense.
With the game approaching the hour-mark; United skipper Wright prevented a near certain third goal for the visitors, sliding in at the crucial moment to stop Watt pulling the trigger from close-range and bagging his second goal on his first appearance for Rovers.
With the home crowd given little to shout about; Oxford spurned two quick-fire half chances to pull themselves back into this fourth-round tie, but Roofe couldn’t fully control substitute Danny Hylton’s perfectly weighted through ball before Sercombe fluffed his lines from with a dragged volley from the edge of the 18-yard area.
Tom Lawrence; who was thrown on by Blackburn boss Lambert in place of Darragh Lenihan just moments before, almost grabbed the visitor’s third goal of the afternoon with his first contribution of the match, but the Leicester City loanee blazed over from 14 yards when it looked easier to hit the target.
With 15 minutes remaining; the ever-present Jackson, who joined the Ewood Park outfit following his release from League One Barnsley in the New Year, then drew another foul from United’s defence as Wright hauled down the Canadian on the edge of the penalty box.
That gave Blackburn winger Marshall, who had only scored spot-kicks for the away side this season, the opportunity to test United ‘keeper Slocombe once more with a set piece, which he duly did with a wonderfully whipped effort into the bottom corner.
Now boasting a three-goal lead; Jackson went about netting his deserved goal in the final ten minutes, but the 28-year-old struck his next effort straight at the goalkeeper.
Slocombe’s net was raided again late on; with Jackson flashing a header over after great work down the right-flank from Bennett, before fellow winger Conway tried his luck from 20 yards out, only for the ball to fly straight into the shot stopper’s gloves.
Just under 1,500 away fans made the 189-mile trip down to the Kassam Stadium this afternoon, with the majority bursting into a chorus of “We are going to Wembley!” as the final whistle blew.
It seemed all too easy for Blackburn given Oxford’s magnificent display against Swansea in the previous round; but Rovers conducted their homework brilliantly and executed their game plan to perfection to stop United in their tracks whenever they looked to break away, being restricted to just the one shot on target throughout the afternoon.
Lambert’s men will be in the hat for the fifth-round of the FA Cup which will be drawn live on Sunday afternoon, meanwhile Appleton’s side have a quick turnaround as they host League One Millwall on Tuesday night in their Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Area final second-leg following their encouraging 2-0 first-leg triumph.