An injury-ravaged Oxford United side went down to a third defeat in their last four away league games as 2007 got off to a disappointing start in the mud of St James' Park.

Jim Smith's men had enough problems before the game kicked off with injuries to key strikers Rob Duffy and Yemi Odubade.

It got worse as Rufus Brevett put through his own goal inside 14 minutes and then both Steve Basham and skipper Phil Gilchrist went off with further knocks.

The U's battled manfully in very difficult and heavy conditions, and felt they should have had at least one penalty for handball before City added a second goal in the second half to seal the points.

Andy Burgess converted a last-minute penalty, but it was only a consolation, leaving a sorry and mud-splattered United to troop off licking their wounds.

Duffy and Odubade were ruled out with thigh injuries sustained in Saturday's 1-1 draw with Crawley, both failing late fitness tests.

And without his two key front men, Smith began by deploying Basham in a central position up front with Burgess to his left and Eddie Anaclet to his right.

With a depleted squad, it meant the U's had only four players on the bench, something of an oddity for a team that has led the division for most of the season.

The pitch was suprisingly churned up considering Exeter hadn't played on it for over a fortnight.

Unlike Oxford, the Grecians had enjoyed a good December, having won three of their previous four.

Burgess forced the game's first corner, in the third minute, which came to nothing.

However, after the early skirmishes, it was City who looked the more threatening.

And they took the lead on 14 minutes when Dean Moxey sent over a useful low cross from the left, between the U's defence and Billy Turley.

Brevett, in trying to clear with Wayne Carlisle coming in right behind him, could only knock the ball high into the net for an own goal.

Oxford's problems intensified when Basham then appeared to twist a knee in the muddy turf. He limped on for a while before being replaced by Gavin Johnson midway through the first half.

So now it was Plan C for the U's, with this time John Dempster moving up to play at centre forward.

United took some time to get back into the match, but they did do so, and created reasonable half-chances.

Carl Pettefer struck a goalbound shot from the edge of the box which smacked against Chris Todd's arm. The visitors screamed for a penalty, but referee Gary Lewis waved play on.

With four minutes remaining in the second half, stand-in striker Dempster had a good opportunity as Burgess's corner was headed on invitingly to him by Chris Hargreaves, but he scooped his shot over from six yards.

Conditions had been gradually deteriorating as the first half wore on, with the strong wind accompanied by driving rain.

It needed some strong defending by Phil Gilchrist to stop Jamie Mackie in his tracks and the first 45 minutes ended with Barry Quinn clearing off his line when an inswinging corner by the home side was flicked on dangerously.

Gilchrist was unable to come out for the second half and 19-year-old Andy Gunn replaced him for his debut, with Hargreaves taking over the captain's armband.

Gunn produced some good headed clearances and looked composed on the ball.

Alongside him, Barry Quinn had been magnificent in making a series of last-ditch tackles and blocks, but United's central defence went AWOL to leave Todd unmarked and were fortunate that the City player headed wide from just six yards.

At the other end, the visitors kept seeing shots blocked or defelected just wide.

First Dempster, from Anaclet's lay-off, and then Hargreaves, who saw his fierce drive deflected just inches past the right post.

But in the 76th minute, there looked to be no way back for Oxford as Mackie pounced on a long clearance from the keeper after Quinn slipped over.

He brushed off Brevett's challenge and squeezed the ball under Turley's body and into the goal.

Trying to respond, United went close again as Johnson's 16-yard shot deflected narrowly wide.

Josh Kennet came on near the end and in the 89th minute, from his pass, Pettefer centred from the right, Jon Challinor stuck up an arm to block - and this time the ref did award a penalty, which Burgess coolly converted.

Despite five minutes of stoppage time, though, United never really looked like scoring a second, so their miserable run continues.