KEMAR Roofe’s early goal and Liam Sercombe’s late strike proved the difference as Oxford United got the win they craved to stay in the Sky Bet League Two automatic promotion places.

It was a richly-deserved result given United’s chances, especially during a dominant second half.

But having led through Roofe’s rebound, the hosts had to survive some nervy moments before Sercombe’s solo effort finally made the points safe in stoppage time.

Anything other than a win would have seen Michael Appleton’s men drop out of the top three for the first time since October, but the result ensured their fate is still in their own hands with two games remaining.

The last few days had been dominated by concerns over a variety of Oxford United players struggling with injuries and illness.

The eagerly-awaited teamsheet showed four changes from the 1-1 draw at Newport County.

Kemar Roofe and Alex MacDonald were fit to come into the side, but John Lundstram could only make the bench so Josh Ruffels started in midfield.

But the big surprise came at left back, where Joe Skarz – who had previously been ruled out for the rest of the season with a groin injury – started.

It was a huge game, but there were no nerves in the air at the Kassam Stadium as the game kicked off.

And the upbeat mood was rewarded within seven minutes, when United opened the scoring.

MacDonald’s deep cross fell to Chris Maguire, who teed up Liam Sercombe to rattle a shot which smacked the crossbar but fell perfectly for Roofe to slam home on the rebound.

It was a great start and United looked full of energy and invention in the early stages.

MacDonald fired a tricky chance wide from Roofe’s cross, before Hylton curled a shot just past the post after springing the offside trap.

Hartlepool had hardly got going, but they went on to see plenty of the ball in the half hour up to the break.

Craig Hignett’s side appeared to relish the smooth playing surface and kept possession well, with Michael Woods repeatedly finding pockets of space in between the lines.

United goalkeeper Benji Buchel was not stretched – saving routine efforts from Nathan Thomas, Jake Gray and Luke James.

But Pools looked a threat with plenty of neat football in the final third and needed to be watched carefully.

The hosts played more like a side on their travels, largely playing on the break.

They should have doubled the lead with one such counter-attack midway through the half.

Maguire won the ball in his own half and played an extended one-two with Roofe, before crossing low to the near post where Danny Hylton fired wide.

During the break the crowd were treated to a lap of honour for members of the Milk Cup-winning side, 30 years on from their triumph.

The legends were also 1-0 up at half-time at Wembley and will have been pleased to see United put together a decent spell after the break.

Roofe had a shot deflected over before he was substituted for what must have been a pre-match plan to protect his ankle.

O’Dowda replaced him and almost immediately was part of a four on one break, but his pass for Hylton allowed Matthew Bates to recover and slide in.

Nonetheless Pools were coming under increasing pressure and Maguire, who seemed to have been given licence to roam was hacked down by Lewis Hawkins and Jake Carroll in quick succession, earning bookings.

MacDonald also fizzed in a low cross which somehow evaded O’Dowda six yards out, but while it remained 1-0 the game was far from safe.

As if to illustrate the fragility of their position, United had hearts in mouths 17 minutes from time when Carl Magnay rose unmarked to meet a Nathan Thomas free-kick, only to head wide.

The home side began to look edgy as the game entered the final stages.

They were grateful to Liam Sercombe eight minutes from time for clearing a scramble from a corner off the line.

It shook United back into gear and it took a wonderful one-handed save from Trevor Carson to deny the excellent Maguire from making the game safe in the 87th minute.

The home fans were aghast when they saw the fourth official’s board display five minutes added on.

But halfway through the injury time there was a huge roar of relief as Sercombe produced a moment of outstanding brilliance to slalom through challenges in the box to score.

Oxford Utd: Buchel, Kenny, Dunkley, Wright, Skarz (Lundstram 65), MacDonald (Roberts 79), Sercombe, Ruffels, Maguire, Hylton, Roofe (O’Dowda 57).

Unused subs: Slocombe, Mullins, Bowery, Waring.

Hartlepool Utd: Carson, Magnay, Bates, Jackson, Carroll, Featherstone, Woods (Bingham 79), Hawkins, Gray (Oates 70), James (Duckworth 85), Thomas.

Unused subs: Bartlett, Richards, R Jones, Laurent.

Referee: Ben Toner (Lancashire).

Attendance: 7,955 (277 visitors).