Sheffield Wednesday 2
Varney 24, 41
ARGYLE'S relegation fears deepened on a massively frustrating afternoon at Sheffield Wednesday.
The Pilgrims deservedly took the lead against the lacklustre Owls when Rory Fallon found space to nod home an Alan Judge corner on 23 minutes.
The home response was immediate, with Luke Varney punishing sloppy defending to equalise within 60 seconds. The same man was on target again before half-time and, despite controlling much of the game, Argyle slipped to a depressing defeat.
Head Coach Paul Mariner opted to stick with the same squad that battled out a crucial 1-0 win over Derby County at Home Park in midweek. It was a decision that kept David Stockdale in goal in his home county of Yorkshire.
Despite a sparkling display in the 7-0 reserve-team hammering of Southampton on Wednesday, Craig Noone again had to be content for a place among the substitutes. Réda Johnson was also preferred to Chris Barker in defence after the Benin international's storming performance against the Rams.
Mariner's opposite number, Alan Irvine, made just one change from the side that lost 2-0 at Scunthorpe on Tuesday, as the Scot looked for a return to the sort of form that brought three successive wins when he took over at Hillsborough earlier this month, with Varney replacing former Pilgrim, Leon Clarke, in attack.
Alongside Varney was Marcus Tudgay, the man who scored a brace in a comfortable 3-1 victory for the Owls at the Theatre of Greens back in August.
The first shot in anger on a bright, crisp afternoon in South Yorkshire came from Jamie Mackie, who swivelled free from Wednesday skipper Darren Purse before rifling a long-range drive past Lee Grant's left-hand post.
The better football in the opening stages was coming from Green boots. A sweeping move down the left ended with a low Chris Clark cross that Fallon met on the volley and the steered effort only cleared Grant's bar by half-a-yard.
Midfield battles are often cited as the key areas at any level of football and the space enjoyed by Carl Fletcher and Luke Summerfield in the first 15 minutes yielded a number of promising situations for the Pilgrims.
Added to that was the eager running on the width by Clark and Alan Judge, and the home side looked like reverting to the pre-Irvine jitters that cost Brian Laws his job at Hillsborough.
A note of caution for Mariner and the travelling Green Army came from an unconvincing attempt at claiming a Varney corner by Stockdale, as Mark Beevers darted in front of the Pilgrim custodian to glance a header narrowly over.
It was a brief concern for Mariner, as the Greens took the lead on 22 minutes with a well-worked set-piece routine from a Judge corner. Argyle's movement bamboozled the Owls and Fallon was left free to nod the ball past Grant from the edge of the six-yard box.
The goal sparked an impressive response from the previously lifeless hosts and Irvine's men were level within a minute. Varney found himself goalside of Kári Árnáson and was able to poke the ball past the advancing Stockdale.
Two of the simplest goals you could ever wish to see and, from a defensive perspective, two of the softest. It was particularly galling for Mariner, who, after seeing his side gradually eek out an opening to score, had to watch the same players gift Wednesday a basic equaliser.
Argyle were soon back on the attack, however, and Summerfield had a chance to cap a cultured first 30 minutes in midfield when he turned Purse in the penalty area, but the eventual scooped shot was a poor option with Mackie waiting unmarked for a cut-back on the edge of the box.
The home crowd, admirably patient at first, finally turned on their troops soon after, as the Greens continued to dominate both possession and territorial advantage.
Wednesday's best hope seemed to come from Argyle complacency and Varney almost punished a woeful back-pass by Árnáson on 35 minutes, but the Icelandic defender managed to regain his footing to stab the ball out for a corner.
For all the positive possession, Argyle, incredibly, found themselves going into the half-time break 2-1 down. Árnáson's clash with Tudgay just inside the Argyle half saw the ball squirt forward for Varney, who outsprinted Johnson and slipped a neat finish past Stockdale, and inside the far post from a tight angle.
Once again, it was a painfully simple goal to concede and thoughts of favourite football clichés sprung to mind: you have to score when you are on top (Argyle did not) and win when you are playing badly (Wednesday were).
It was a safe bet the normally affable Mariner was seething in the interval, and with good reason. Two lapses had left the Greens chasing a game in which they were the dominant side.
The presumed lashing had a decent effect at the start of the second-half, with the Greens again controlling possession and a pair of long-throws from Árnáson prompting mild scrambling in the Wednesday defence.
The danger for Argyle in a strangely subdued atmosphere was to allow the performance to sink to Wednesday's level, which was frankly poor. With that in mind, it was hard not to cast eyes towards the limbering Noone on the touchline. For all their dominance, Argyle needed inspiration and a different line of attack.
Mackie also sensed that need as he chased onto a threaded pass from Gary Sawyer to send a low cross beyond the reach of Grant, and Purse did well to scramble the ball wide under pressure from Fallon.
In the end, Mariner turned to Bradley Wright-Phillips and Judge was sacrificed, as the Greens entered the final 20 minutes with a three-man attack.
Changing formation in a game you are controlling is always a gamble but when you are behind, anything is worth a try. The early signs were not good for Argyle, however, as the Green shuffling seemed to finally awaken the Owls from their slumber.
When Argyle eventually won back possession, Johnson risked his good looks with a crazy dive at Grant's feet in a bizarre attempt to reach Fletcher's over-hit cross. The idea cost him a headache and a yellow card.
Another weaving run from Mackie ended with a shot ballooned into the away end, and Mariner decided the time for Noone had finally arrived, with Summerfield making way.
Argyle's final chance for salvation stemmed from another incisive break by Mackie, but admirable honesty amid dangling Wednesday feet in the box prevented the Pilgrim talisman from going to ground and Wednesday escaped with all three points, somehow.
Sheffield Wednesday (4-4-2): 1 Lee Grant; 3 Lewis Buxton (20 Frank Simek 66), 4 Darren Purse (capt), 15 Mark Beevers, 2 Tommy Spurr; 33 Michael Gray, 30 Tom Soares (10 Akpo Sodje 68), 14 Darren Potter, 17 James O'Connor; 19 Luke Varney, 7 Marcus Tudgay. Substitutes: 5 Richard Hinds, 8 Sean McAllister, 9 Francis Jeffers, 11 Etienne Esajas, 25 Arron Jameson (gk).
Booked: Buxton 45
Argyle (4-4-2): 21 David Stockdale; 2 Karl Duguid, 11 Kári Árnáson, 22 Réda Johnson, 18 Gary Sawyer; 25 Alan Judge (10 Bradley Wright-Phillips 68), 4 Carl Fletcher (capt), 20 Luke Summerfield (17 Craig Noone 81), 6 Chris Clark; 8 Jamie Mackie, 14 Rory Fallon. Substitutes: 1 Romain Larrieu (gk), 15 Chris Barker, 16 David McNamee, 24 Ashley Barnes, 26 Alan Gow.
Booked: Duguid 64, Johnson 79
Referee: Kevin Wright (Cambridgeshire).
Attendance: 22,590 (400 away est).