New season, same scenario. Or at least that’s how it seemed at the football Varsity matches on the 8th of March. Played once again at R Costings Abbey, the Cambridge United stadium, a similar sequence of events as last year unfolded, as the game was decided in a dramatic penalty shootout.
This was the fifth resort to spot kicks in the last nine Varsity matches. The closeness of the matches in recent years has been borne out by the neck-and-neck positions in wins Oxford and Cambridge hold. The Dark Blues now possess a narrow lead of 51 victories to 49 with 31 draws.
Played out in front of over 1300 spectators, the match was a pretty gripping affair from the start. Close passing by both teams and tight defensive play ensured a progression to a penalty shootout was a fair reflection of the tension between the Blues teams.
It was a close contest from kick-off, starting off at a fast pace with Oxford quickly coming close to taking the lead when Cambridge defender Richard Wostenhulme’s wayward pass headed clearance from an Oxford cross striking his own bar and nearly gifting Oxford an early goal. The Oxford Blues kept up the pressure for much of the first half with Cambridge only being able to break on the counter-attack.
However, Oxford failed to take advantage on their more impressive first half display as it was Cambridge who opened the scoring a little before half time. It was on a counter-attack that Cambridge managed to score with the Oxford goalkeeper Ben Szreter being unable to stop Daniel Forde scoring after a flowing movement which saw Cambridge midfielder James May put Forde through by capitalising on Oxford’s lax defending.
Cambridge doggedly held onto this lead well into the second half of the match with the first half hour being played in a similar fashion to the first, with Oxford continuing to press far into the Cambridge half but with the Light Blues defending capably and threatening on the break. It is a testament to the Cambridge defence that the breakthrough that Oxford desperately needed came by way of a set piece rather than in open play. In the 75th minute Oxford were awarded a free kick to the left of the penalty box which Oxford captain Ezra Rubenstein stepped up to take. Rubenstein’s free kick ended up in the Cambridge goal without a deflection and levelled the match at a crucial time.
The remaining 15 minutes saw each side reluctant to gift valuable opportunities away to the other side with so little time left and so the pace of the game dropped slightly as safety replaced aggression as the priority of both teams.
The score stayed at 1-1 after 90 minutes and so it left to a penalty shoot-out to decide the winner of the 131st Varsity match. The penalty shoot-out was as close at the game itself with both Cambridge and Oxford scoring 4 of their first 5 penalties to ensure this intense game finished in the most dramatic fashion with a sudden-death penalty shoot-out. At 6-5 to Oxford, Cambridge defender Preye Crooks stood up to take the vital penalty. However, Cambridge-born Oxford goalkeeper Ben Szretes saved the spot-kick and thus gave the Dark Blues their first victory in 4 years.
This was a fitting climax to a match which reflected the competitive history of the Varsity match and sets the stage perfectly for another dramatic encounter next year.