Oxford United will be top of the table at Christmas, but it's alarm bells, rather than jingle bells, which are ringing out in the lead-up to the festive period after their worrying dip in form continued at Nene Park on Saturday.

A goal in the seventh minute from Curtis Woodhouse, the former boxer, dealt United a knockout blow and they were left bruised as well as dazed with defender Matt Day stretchered off with a bad ankle injury in the second half.

Rushden, who had given Oxford one of their most chastening defeats last season - when both clubs were in Coca-Cola League Two - had not won for 12 games, stretching back to October when Paul Hart was still their manager.

Caretaker boss Tony Godden played a cautious 4-5-1 formation against the league leaders, and with that kind of defensive line-up, the one thing Oxford didn't want to do was to concede an early goal and then find all the home team's players behind the ball and scrapping for their lives.

But that was precisely what happened as Tyrone Berry got beyond Gavin Johnson on the right and crossed superbly from the bye-line for Woodhouse, running in from deep, to score with a diving header.

Three goals down after 22 minutes on their last visit here in January, United fans were thinking 'here we go again'.

The U's have been starting games poorly for the past few weeks and they had only themselves to blame once again.

Diamonds worked harder than them, winning countless more headers and second ball in all areas of the pitch in the first half an hour.

Jim Smith had preferred John Dempster to Day at centre back, and recalled Steve Basham alongside Rob Duffy up front.

But the service to the strikers was not good and Andy Burgess's crossing and set-piece delivery was mixed at best.

Oxford goalkeeper Billy Turley, like Burgess booed by home fans whenever he touched the ball, had been given a warning after just three minutes that this might not be such a comfortable 90 minutes as many suspected.

Michael Rankine turned and shot from outside the box, yet Turley appeared to let it go thinking it was going wide, only to see it come back off his left-hand post.

It needed a desperate boot from Barry Quinn to clear the danger.

Some woeful Diamonds defending presented an opportunity to Burgess ten yards out, but he headed wide.

Burgess then turned creator midway through the first half with an excellent right-footed cross that Duffy met at the far post, but could only head past an upright.

United's players were not closing down as efficiently as they were two months ago, and in one period of sloppy play, first Dempster was caught in possession, then Phil Gilchrist hit his backpass too softly, and Turley had to risk serious injury to clear as Rankine bore down on him.

A sign that it wasn't United's day came when Burgess took a quick free-kick and top-scorer Duffy, throwing himself forward, headed wide again.

The visitors were not exerting any serious attacking pressure, though, despite having a lot of the ball in the Rushden half, and it was not until the 37th minute that they forced their first corner.

Five minutes before half-time they went close to equalising, however, when Duffy, on the right edge of the box, had his shot blocked and the ball ballooned high into the air.

When it came down, Gilchrist had a header nodded off the line by Jon Ashton, and then Chris Hargreaves almost turned the ball in, before the ref blew for a foul on keeper Nicky Eyre.

So the U's trudged off at the interval, trailing at half-time for the fourth away game in succession.

Smith made an immediate change for the second half, switching to 4-4-2 and bringing Day on for Quinn (pictured), which released Johnson into midfield.

But from his first touch of the ball, near the touchline, Day was clattered and seemed to get a bang on his ankle. He tried to run it off, but with only minimal success.

The 1,386 Oxford fans - more than 600 up on the corresponding match last season - gave their team fantastic vocal backing at the start of the second half, but they became increasingly frustrated that Eyre was tested so little.

The midfielders were not supporting the front men, and Smith may have had that in mind as he replaced Hargreaves with Yemi Odubade on 56 minutes.

Odubade immediately gave the U's another dimension by running hard at, or more usually past, opponents.

And when Paul Watson cynically pulled his shirt to stop him in his tracks, the sub showed his anger with a retaliatory slap.

Watson was booked, and Odubade escaped without even an admonishment.

Rushden should have made it 2-0 in the 59th minute when a shocking backpass from Anaclet fell 20 yards short. Rankine pounced on it but Turley pulled off a great save to spare the defender's blushes.

The last half an hour was all Oxford as they chased an equaliser.

Duffy met a left-wing Burgess corner on the volley, but directed it two yards off target, and Dempster, soon after receiving treatment, could feel aggrieved that he was then booked when he looked to have won the ball in a tackle.

The unlucky Day went down in a heap after injuring his ankle and had to be carried away on a stretcher.

Smith tried everything to find a goal, sending on Jamie Slabber for the last 20 minutes, so that United had four strikers on the pitch.

But they were too one-dimensional. Everything went back to Burgess in a deep-lying position and he frequently resembled an American Football quarter-back as he pulled away from his teammates and then launched the ball forward.

It was mainly meat and drink for Rushden defenders Wayne Hatswell, Ashton and Chris Hope, who simply headed the ball to safety.

The game ended with Tom Shaw almost turning home another dangerous Berry cross at the near post for Rushden, and Johnson going close with an angled shot in injury time for the U's, keeper Eyre arcing back to push it aside.

The away fans were not happy at the final whistle. But this was, after all, only Oxford's second league defeat of the season.