A SHOCKING start wrecked Oxford United’s hopes of challenging Blackburn Rovers, who ruthlessly made the most of their chances to claim the points.

The visitors scored from every shot on target they had all night, cashing in on a couple of defensive errors and a debatable penalty decision to lead 3-0 after just 22 minutes.

Charlie Mulgrew scored twice, sandwiching Marcus Antonsson’s tap-in.

United did well to steady themselves to take the game to Rovers and pulled a goal back just before half-time through Jack Payne.

Had they scored the next goal, it would have been game on, but Joe Nuttall’s fortuitous finish restored the three-goal lead on 71 minutes.

Substitute Jon Obika pulled a goal back late on to leave United wondering what might have been without the disastrous start.

They now trail the top-six by five points, with sixth-placed Rovers having two games in hand.

United were unchanged from their 4-0 win at Plymouth Argyle, but quickly found Rovers were a far tougher proposition than the Pilgrims.

The visitors were on the front foot from the first whistle and got off to a flier to force a trio of dangerous early corners.

From Bradley Dack’s third whipped delivery the ball was flicked on to find the unmarked Mulgrew, who could not miss at the back post.

James Henry’s audacious looping shot from near the touchline threatened to catch out goalkeeper David Raya, but it was a rare promising moment for the hosts early on.

Rovers were powerful, organised and totally ruthless when United made mistakes in their own half.

Aaron Martin’s error let them in for the second goal, as his loose pass was pounced on by Dack. John Mousinho recovered to put him under pressure, but the midfielder still got a shot away which Simon Eastwood could only parry for Antonsson to tap into an empty net.

And Rovers were out of sight midway through the half when Mulgrew slammed in a penalty after Dwight Tiendalli was adjudged to have brought down Dack.

It looked a soft decision, but for all of Rovers’ power and quality, they had not had to work hard for their goals.

United looked like they might be blown away, but stuck to their game plan of playing their way through the visitors’ high press.

While it yielded plenty of possession in the final third, forging an opening proved tough.

Aside from a 20-yard Payne shot immediately after the third goal, saved by Raya, Rovers did not look worried.

A supportive home crowd urged their side to pull the trigger – and in first-half stoppage-time they got their wish.

Payne bought half a yard of space just inside the penalty area before unleashing a superb shot which found the net via the far post.

It will have changed the mood in the United changing room at half-time and they picked up where they left off when play restarted.

The hosts were suddenly first to the loose balls and Martin had the ball in the net early in the second half, but referee John Brooks had spotted a foul at the corner by Mousinho.

Nonetheless, United were on top and Raya had to make an excellent save at full stretch to keep out a mis-hit cross from Ricardinho.

Payne also exerted the Rovers goalkeeper and it became clear if United scored the next goal, they would fancy their chances of getting something from the game.

But their momentum was stopped dead 19 minutes from time when Rovers scored against the run of play.

Elliott Bennett beat Ricardinho out wide and from his cross Martin’s attempted clearance hit Nuttall and bobbled in.

It was a sucker punch, but United kept plugging away and had the final word when Obika spun and fired a shot in off the far post five minutes from time.

Oxford Utd (4-2-3-1): Eastwood, Tiendalli, Martin, Mousinho, Ricardinho, Ledson (Xemi 66), Ruffels, Henry (Mowatt 61), Payne, Rothwell, Thomas (Obika 66).

Unused subs: Shearer, Carroll, Williamson, Napa.

Booked: None.

Blackburn (4-2-3-1): Raya, Nyambe, Downing, Mulgrew, Williams, Evans (Harper 51), Smallwood, Bennett, Dack (Graham 78), Antonsson (Samuel 66), Nuttall.

Unused subs: Leutwiler, Whittingham, Ward, Caddis.

Booked: Mulgrew, Downing.

Referee: John Brooks (Leicestershire).

Attendance: 6,965 (752 visitors).