OXFORD United’s excellent second-half display counted for nothing as they were unable to find a way past Sunderland’s stubborn rearguard.

It meant Jordan Willis’s glancing effort from a second-minute Chris Maguire corner proved the difference.

United reacted well to the early setback, without creating much before the break.

But, playing into the stiff breeze brought by Storm Dennis, they exerted lots of pressure after the interval.

Playing some of their best football in Sky Bet League One since the turn of the year, they had the Black Cats rocking.

But an equaliser never arrived as United lost more ground in the race for the Sky Bet League One play-offs.

United’s issues with a host of players unavailable or lacking match fitness saw Karl Robinson switch to a 3-5-2 system.

Elliott Moore came in alongside John Mousinho and Rob Dickie, while Anthony Forde replaced Sam Long and Dan Agyei was handed a first league start for United after his goal in midweek.

Much of the build-up was dominated by the weather, which was bad but not severe enough to stop the game going ahead.

United may have wished it was postponed when they fell behind inside two minutes.

Josh Ruffels made a good block on Denver Hume, but the resulting Maguire corner went into the net via a glancing header from Willis.

It was a terrible start for United, who have developed a bad habit of conceding first in recent weeks.

Their response was good, though, and they arguably shaded proceedings for the rest of a tight first half.

The conditions were poor, but not so bad it dominated the game.

United saw plenty of the ball and on ten minutes Matty Taylor got in when Bailey Wright failed to cut out a long ball.

Jon McLaughlin was alert to the danger and the goalkeeper did just enough to block Taylor’s effort, which ricocheted across the box.

The striker was licking his lips four minutes later when Cameron Brannagan’s pass carved open Sunderland, but Mark Sykes’s cross was cut out as United’s No 9 shaped for a tap-in.

Sunderland’s wide men hugged the touchline when the visitors were in possession, which made for plenty of space in the middle when the ball was turned over.

Agyei’s pace worried the Black Cats and midway through the half he broke into the box, where Wright had to make a well-timed tackle to only concede a corner.

For all United’s promising moments, they struggled to create clear chances.

Late in the half a James Henry cross was deflected to the back post, where Ruffels’s header was just too high for Taylor four yards out.

At the other end Simon Eastwood was not tested before the break, with Rob Dickie making one excellent intervention to deny a big opportunity for Charlie Wyke from Maguire’s cross.

United’s only effort on target in the half was a weak header from Ruffels, but they quickly gave McLaughlin more to do after the restart.

The goalkeeper did well to tip Ruffels’s 20-yard volley over the cross and from the following corner he kept out a shot by Agyei.

Henry appeared to have figured the wind out and he whipped in a series of dangerous crosses, plus one looping shot which had McLaughlin scrambling.

Dickie had a backheel cleared, while from another set piece Ruffels headed into the side netting before Sunderland found a way to slow the game down.

It worked for a while, but United came on strongly again in the closing stages, as Marcus Browne and Nathan Holland came off the bench.

A couple of penalty appeals came and went, both against Luke O'Nien, but referee Kevin Johnson was unmoved.

The best chance fell to Moore in the six-yard box, but he opted to take a touch and Sunderland snuffed out the danger to continue their good run.

Oxford Utd (3-5-2): Eastwood, Dickie, Mousinho, Moore, Forde, Sykes (Holland 78), Henry (Mackie 89), Brannagan, Ruffels, Agyei (Browne 61), Taylor.

Unused subs: Stevens, Long, Thorne, Hanson.

Booked: Brannagan.

Sunderland (3-4-3): J McLaughlin, Willis, Wright (Ozturk 84), Flanagan, O’Nien, Power, Dobson, Hume, Gooch (Scowen 59), Wyke, Maguire (Lafferty 86).

Unused subs: Burge, C McLaughlin, Watmore, Semenyo.

Booked: None.

Referee: Kevin Johnson (Somerset).

Attendance: 9,105 (1,776 visitors).