Norwich City Under-21s make the trip to Oxford United tonight for the opening group match of the EFL Trophy. Ahead of the game, canaries.co.uk caught up with BBC Radio Oxford commentator Jerome Sale to get the lowdown on the opposition.
This competition has been quite a successful one for Oxford over recent years, hasn’t it?
JS: Yeah, they got to the final twice in the last few years, losing to Barnsley in 2015-16 and Coventry the following season. They also got to the quarter-finals last season. It’s an interesting one because it’s taken the fans a long time to warm to it, but I think the club have completely seen the benefits of it financially in the last five years, particularly when you get to the later stages. Certain players have come through and played well in this competition and then impacted the first team in the league games, so there has been a big upside to it.
With that in mind, do you expect there to be a lot of rotation in tonight’s squad?
JS: It looks as if there might be a reasonable amount of rotation, but not perhaps as much as there might be if this match took place deeper into the season. This is the first match in the group stage and Oxford’s ninth game of the season, but they’re not carrying players who’ve got a huge amount of fatigue. Perhaps in the later group matches or even the knockout round if Oxford make it that far, then there might be more changes. I think you’ll see the nucleus of the same team that played in the league on Saturday, with perhaps four or five who were on the bench getting a start.
Karl Robinson, the Oxford manager, has a good track record of bringing through young players at the clubs he’s been at including MK Dons and Charlton Athletic. I think he can see this as a good vehicle for that at Oxford as well.
So which young players should we be keeping an eye out for against our U21s?
JS: Ben Woodburn is only 19 but he’s already on international duty with Wales, so he won’t be playing, nor will 17-year-old Nico Jones, who’s been called up for one of the age groups for Republic of Ireland after playing quite well in this competition last season.
There’s a kid called Fabio Lopes who may be involved tonight. He scored a couple of goals last week in the Under-23s match against West Ham. He’s got an interesting backstory of growing up in Portugal and then moving to Oxfordshire to chase the football dream. His family moved over here and the club are looking after them well. He’s had experience in this competition before and might get a run out tonight. He’s quite conspicuous so you won’t miss him!
How has the season gone so far? The U’s are 18th in League One at the time of writing and there has been some late drama in recent matches.
JS: Yeah, for those at the game tonight, don’t leave early. There were two goals in stoppage time at the weekend as Oxford came from 3-1 down to draw 3-3 against Coventry. It’s funny because in terms of points in the league they’re not that much better off than they were last season, but last season it was considered to be a terrible start to the campaign whereas this year I think people are generally satisfied.
The team have played good football, and there have been probably only two matches where Oxford haven’t really performed, against Burton Albion and Bristol Rovers. Other than that, even in the games they’ve lost or drawn, there’s been satisfaction with the way the team has played.
If there’s one area of criticism it will be about the darker side of football involving game management. Against Burton Albion and Bristol Rovers, Oxford led in those matches and lost. That can’t happen for a team that wants to be successful at League One level. It’s difficult stuff to sort out, but being able to play, create chances and score goals are things Oxford seem to have in abundance, but not so much keeping the goals out.
Finally, what’s your score prediction for tonight’s game?
JS: After what I’ve just said probably 7-6! I don’t know how good Norwich’s defence is going to be, but I expect the team will be quite good at creating chances and moving the ball around. I think it will be a really open game with a lot of goals.