OXFORD United let a two-goal lead slip as they had to settle for a point at Port Vale.

The visitors came flying out of the traps to produce arguably their best 45-minute spell of the campaign.

Chey Dunkley and Dan Crowley found the net to give United a 2-0 lead at half-time.

But the visitors' indiscipline allowed Vale to hit back at the start of the second half, reducing the arrears through Rigino Cicilia from Ryan Taylor's free-kick.

The tall striker went down in the box five minutes later and Curtis Nelson was penalised, allowing Taylor to slam in from 12 yards on his debut.

There was still half an hour to play and United had to dig in to avoid being blown away, but despite both sides creating chances to get back in front, none were taken.

The fall-out from the midweek defeat at Coventry City translated into head coach Michael Appleton changing half his outfield side.

Crowley was handed his maiden league start for United and Nelson played for the first time since August.

Joe Skarz was fit again to return, while Liam Sercombe and Marvin Johnson were promoted from the bench.

It had many onlookers scratching their heads as to exactly how a side without a recognised striker would line up.

Vale took most of the first half to work it out – by which time they were 2-0 down.

The visitors’ fluid formation allowed Crowley and Chris Maguire freedom to roam, with Johnson and Sercombe on the flanks.

A casual United had lost the initiative almost from the kick-off at Coventry, but here they imposed themselves immediately.

Vale were pressed backwards and Maguire’s shot on the turn flashed just wide early on.

The home fans were already getting restless at their side’s inability to get out of their own half even before United opened the scoring in the 11th minute.

Maguire was fouled alongside the penalty area on United’s left flank, from where his in-swinging free-kick was glanced in by Dunkley.

Oxford Mail:

  • Chey Dunkley heads in Chris Maguire's free-kick to open the scoring

It was a superb start, but eight minutes later came a move which really showed the merits of Appleton’s selection.

When Vale gave the ball away cheaply on the halfway line, United counter-attacked at pace.

A surge forward by Joe Rothwell led to Maguire slipping in Johnson to cut the ball back for the unmarked Crowley to coolly slot home from ten yards.

It was a wonderful goal, with Vale’s defence chasing shadows.

United’s control on the game led to unrest among the home fans and Johnson’s impact on the game prompted Vale boss Bruno Ribeiro to haul off right back Calvin Mac-Intosh.

The winger had been struggling for confidence in recent weeks, but this was a sign it was returning.

Jak Alnwick made a spectacular parry to prevent Maguire making it 3-0 from a free-kick just after the half-hour mark.

Vale carried a threat when they moved the ball quickly, but Simon Eastwood was not troubled before the break.

Instead the hosts’ plans continued to go badly, with Sam Foley forced off with an injury.

And they could easily have finished the half further adrift, but Sercombe fired Crowley’s cross wide at the back post after a 50-yard dribble by Johnson.

The miss did not look critical at the time, but within 15 minutes of the restart United’s lead had vanished.

Vale pulled a goal back when a Taylor free-kick fell kindly for Cicilia, who fired the ball into the net from eight yards.

United’s immediate response was encouraging. Alnwick smothered a chance for Maguire, who curled a free-kick into the side netting 60 seconds later.

But the visitors’ were hit by a sucker punch just before the hour, when Nelson was harshly adjudged to have fouled Cicilia in the box.

Taylor slammed in the resulting penalty to make it 2-2.

Vale had their tails up and were helped by United indiscipline, as a host of free-kicks were given away around the penalty area.

From one such set piece Eastwood was required to make an excellent one-handed save to thwart Taylor.

United threatened only sporadically, although as the half wore on they came back into the game.

Rothwell laid on a shooting chance for Tyler Roberts shortly after the West Brom loanee came on, but the shot was unconvincing and easy for Alnwick.

Sercombe also had a diving header which ended in the side netting, but Vale looked the more likely to grab a late winner.

In stoppage time Eastwood ended up chasing a loose ball well out of his area and will have been mightily relieved to see the resulting shot headed away.

Port Vale: Alnwick, Mac-Intosh (Mbamba 28), Streete, Smith, Hart, Grant, Tavares, Taylor (de Freitas 81), Foley (Pereira 43), Thomas, Cicilia.

Unused subs: Santos, Knops, Turner, Kiko.

Oxford Utd: Eastwood, Edwards, Nelson, Dunkley, Skarz, Rothwell, Sercombe, Lundstram, Johnson (T Roberts 74), Crowley, Maguire.

Unused subs: Buchel, Raglan, Ruffels, MacDonald, Hemmings, Taylor.

Referee: Ben Toner (Lancashire).

Attendance: 4,837 (606 visitors).