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Men's Blues Varsity Match Report: 3-0

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A fast and furious talismanic cameo from Dom Thelen in midweek ramped up the volume (and the animosity) ahead of this bout of Varsity football – the third in quick succession but standalone in definition and prestige – and here it was Thelen again who masterminded the devastation of Cambridge, producing a vintage forward performance. At home under the lights at Iffley the Oxford number 9 was confined to the stands by the time the half-time whistle arrived: a brace and a red card on the copybook; here Thelen was at the double again but his proximity to the stands was in celebration only, knee slide, arms folded, victory sealed.

This was the second Varsity match in succession to be played at The Hive as a double-header, the first the Men had taken to the turf first. History was made as soon as the first ball was kicked then; by the end of a pulsating day of play yet more had been etched into the books as Oxford completed a double for the third consecutive year.

Cambridge had triumphed in the Midlands 1A BUCS division as Oxford faltered twice against the putative minnows and narrowly failed to convert the lead they had established early in the season. A new core of players, most notably all 6 feet plus and more of Michael Hofstetter at centre back, revitalised the light blue league campaign clinched, and sweetened, with victory against the old enemy. In every aspect on paper the contest struck of parity; the beauty of this game is that it is played on the pitch and in reality this newfound arrogance - manifested in an unchanged XI – bled tactical naivety.

Two changes to the Oxford outfit saw Leo Ackerman start at left wing-back, and Takahiro Tsunoda provide an injection of energy and intelligent between the lines movement. A Varsity starting berth completed a meteoric rise through the ranks for first-year Ackerman and a display full of verve and endeavour highlighted Cambridge’s weakness with containing overlapping runs, Jack Witt on the opposite flank also enjoying a lung-busting performance.

It is not entirely false to say that Cambridge played their best football in the early encounters – played at a more manageable pace, stark certainly against the frenetic start of last year’s encounter – but it is not complementary either, with a single scuffed shot when the option looked the wrong one on the breakaway the only hint of danger from open play.

The light blues were brazen in championing their set-piece play in the build-up to the fixture and with Stefan Wolf nominated to swing-in deliveries at every opportunity might have been expected to dominate the aerial battle. There were fleeting warnings and a half-chance early on headed wide but as the rhythm of the game settled the plan became negated; the lack of alternative attacking presence thereon suggesting it has rarely been required this season.

The pace and effervescence of the new-look front-line called for a less direct approach for Oxford, and the duo’s channel runs sketched mazy paths through a willingness to spring the offside trap as Wulfie Bain began to unfurl the repertoire in the middle of the park Thelen often dropped deeper to offer and held the ball well with his implied strength, but the defining moment came as the ball dropped to his feet in a wider position on the edge of the area. The first touch was good. The second was pure magic: rifling home into the side-netting of the far corner from an angle most would deem impossible. 

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Whilst one side visibly begrudged a moment of quality, the other used it as a spark to ignite a further blitz of attack from which recovery was a more certain impossibility. Ackerman surged forward on the left-side before cleverly jinking his man to shift the ball onto his right, and then plundered the game beyond doubt, and the outstretched arm of John Harrison.

Oxford’s dominance was underlined by the time on the ball afforded to the ball-playing centre back trio of skipper Urwin, Wade and Hale, each playing in their final Varsity fixture. Urwin’s trademark diagonal reversal is a feature of his play and often a weapon in cagey affairs but here he was happy to mop up the loose ball and lay on, an indictment of Cambridge’s forward press and a complement to Oxford’s excellent ball retention in equal measure.

Cambridge were where they hadn’t been before – chasing the game – and though the second half offered an opportunity to regroup, redraft the battle plans, and redouble their efforts, it provided a deadly knockout blow. Yusuf Mushtaq entered the field and threatened immediately with a sharpness hitherto absent from the side, but he would burn brightly and briefly, powerless as Thelen raced away down the other end to score in a clinic of clinical, a floated lob over the onrushing keeper capping a virtuoso display with surely the most refined finish of them all.

As Barnet’s Hive stadium began to empty, signalling the end to another fantastic reprisal as the home of Oxbridge rivalry, a glorious pink hue announcing the arrival of British Summer Time filled the sky above the swathes of tangerine seats: the first time in the day the light shade had managed to tussle with its darker counterpart and come away with victory.

By Calum Flintoff.

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