Carlisle United 1 Oxford United 3: If you can’t beat the worst, and you can’t beat the best, what’s left? Carlisle United tried, tried some more yet still failed against Oxford United. Before this month is out they’ve got to face the teams in sixth and second. Yup – gonna be a breeze, this.

All the Blues can do, as Paul Simpson now seems to be saying recurringly, is keep going, keep working, keep hoping a solution will suddenly smack them in the face. It didn’t happen here, as it didn't at Exeter City. So hopefully it will at Barnsley.

And really, that hope…it’s all United have. They may have a couple more cards still to play in the transfer market, there may be selection combinations so far untried, but it’s a stretch, on current and ongoing evidence, to think the seven or eight wins needed are in their grasp.

Survival from here would defy ever shortening odds. On Saturday night the Blues were 1/7 to go down. Nineteen games offer 19 opportunities, and 57 available points. But the optimism of arithmetic clashes with the pessimism of Carlisle’s direction, form-wise – and the daunting general standard of what they are coming up against in League One.

News and Star: Dan Butterworth goes on the attackDan Butterworth goes on the attack (Image: Ben Holmes)

In the beginning Oxford were not great shakes, but by the end had emphasised why they are solid operators at this level. There was the opportunism of Mark Harris twice, a consummate finish from Tyler Goodrham and an eventually-clear sense of structure, sense of self, that 23rd-placed Carlisle simply do not have.

“I still believe. I do,” said Simpson. Of course he does, and must. The situation is not irretrievable but the required sea-change in conviction and quality did not come here. There were some outpourings of angst towards the officials but United were not victims of gargantuan injustice against Des Buckingham’s side.

The corner that went Oxford’s way for the opener might have been given, might not have been. The onside decision for Harris’s second goal was certainly not the blazing error by assistant Emmanuel Edet that most of the ground felt it was. The defending of both situations by Carlisle was not good enough either and the only time they applied some punch to their own attacking play was, once more, too late.

News and Star: Harrison Neal heads clear for CarlisleHarrison Neal heads clear for Carlisle (Image: Ben Holmes)

The pattern, then, is too familiar for games like this to be regarded as knife-edge, marginal or unjust, even if some of those calls might, on another day, have benefited Carlisle. A team incapable of keeping clean sheets (it’s 21 league games now without one, the worst such run since 1974/75) cannot pile all its disgruntlement into the referee’s room.

Simpson did not even attempt to. What he did attempt, in the beginning, was some freshness in selection which offered initial prospects but not the conclusion Carlisle were aching for. Harry Lewis, the new goalkeeper, was among five changes and Jack Ellis among the other four, the latter getting his second League One start in place of the injured Josh Emmanuel. Dan Butterworth, Alfie McCalmont and Owen Moxon also came in.

There is not, this far in, anything like a Blues XI you can set your watch by. The collective effort from the latest group led Carlisle into a busy and in some ways good first half – although one which, as is often the case, lacked the benefit of a true goal threat.

News and Star: Oxford score their openerOxford score their opener (Image: Ben Holmes)

United’s pressing was keen and this initially caused Oxford’s passing game some discomfort in the visitors’ own half. Butterworth, with his keenness to turn and dribble at defenders, was a lively outlet and United forced a few mistakes out of Buckingham’s players.

It was, to an extent, a battle of energy against technique, gusto against patient principle. For a while it seemed the former might win the day, but Oxford’s central defending was, ultimately, tight, and Luke Armstrong, the new line-leader on home debut, had little service beyond the aerial fayre he had to compete for.

Deceptively, Oxford were pallid, to begin with, in their own attacking, Harris prodding wastefully through to Lewis, and Ruben Rodrigues unable to kill a Cameron Brannagan pass in inviting territory. Carlisle came again with a deft attack which saw Corey Whelan set up Armstrong for a poked finish (saved), yet the familiar experience of United failing to make good on their best work was followed by the other darkly familiar sight of them conceding.

News and Star: Luke Armstrong closes down Luke Armstrong closes down (Image: Ben Holmes)

Harris’s initial shot caused the debated corner and from the resulting Brannagan delivery, Carlisle failed to put the lid either on Elliott Moore or Harris as the striker found space to finish.

Pin, meet balloon. The comeback attempt, late in the half, survived a couple more Oxford raids then led to a near miss from McCalmont after some busy Harrison Neal work at the touchline. But then it was snipped by another sinking moment early in the second period as Harris cut through the defence, Edet’s flag stayed down, Brunton Park fumed and the Oxford striker defied Lewis’s best efforts and clipped the second goal in off the post.

News and Star: Alfie McCalmont fires home United's consolationAlfie McCalmont fires home United's consolation (Image: Ben Holmes)

Carlisle’s position is far too precarious for such things to go against them and for a while one feared they’d vanish completely. Some fans did precisely that after Goodrham's excellent 68th minute finish.

In this world of pain, United then offered up an unlikely vision of a response when Cumming denied sub Jordan Gibson but Carlisle kept the attack alive enough for McCalmont to drill home from the middle of the box. There was a further sense of agitation about Carlisle’s push from there, Joe Garner involved in a skirmish following a challenge with Cumming, the striker then denied on the line by the keeper. Some more late areas were wasted – but this is not, to be clear, a story of near misses.

The gap (still six points) is more gaping, more revealing, than that. Nothing’s dead by mid-January; there is time to avert what looks increasingly inevitable. But after this latest lost afternoon the hill is only steeper, and the clock’s tick more ominous still.