Exeter City 1
by RICK COWDERY
ARGYLE'S League 1 life was not extinguished at St James' Park, as many had feared it might be a few weeks ago, but neither is their fate now in their own hands following a desperate Devon Expressway Derby defeat.
Just when the Pilgrims needed a bravura performance to add to the gutsy displays that had raised hopes of survival from the wreckage of a gruesome season, they failed to deliver.
They must surely win their remaining two home games, against Southampton on Monday and Leyton Orient next Saturday, to avoid relegation. Even then, they will need the helping hand of rivals at the bottom losing.
A goal seconds into the second half from James Dunne put Exeter on their way. The Exeter midfielder slammed home his first goal of the season with a right-foot volley that gave Argyle goalkeeper David Button no chance.
It showed excellent technique and no less than the home side deserved after dictating much of a game in which the Pilgrims looked like the nervous outfit they had every right to be.
Things did not get any better for the Greens after the goal, and, to be honest, an equaliser always looked a remote possibility until the final stages when they threw everything forward and caused City's previously untroubled back four some concern.
Despite a 1-0 win over Milton Keynes at Home Park on Easter Monday, manager Peter Reid had reverted to an initial five-man midfield, recalling Luke Summerfield for his first start since August 21.
Captain Carl Fletcher and Kári Árnason anchored affairs, leaving Summerfield and Yala Bolasie - and not the dropped Joe Mason - to support Rory Fallon in the vanguard.
The back four was as it had been for the previous four games, three of which had been won without a goal being conceded, while Button, who has picked a good time to hit a rich vein of form, continued in goal. That was despite a worrying moment in the warm-up, when he fell heavily after tripping on a divot and required physiotherapist's Paul Atkinson' attention to his right shoulder.
Exeter, whose season effectively ended in a 4-0 crushing at Tranmere the previous Monday, made two changes and reverted from their previous 5-3-2 starting line-up to a 4-4-2 diamond.
Centre-back Matt Taylor was dropped to accommodate midfielder David Noble, who also took the captain's armband, while Daniel Nardiello, scorer of the last-gasp Johnstone's Paint Trophy winner between the two sides in November, came in up front for John O'Flynn.
Argyle's high back-line encouraged City to try to slip Nardiello and veteran Jamie Cureton in behind the defence, but the upside of the tactic was most of the early action took place a fair distance from the Pilgrims' goal.
The first threat on either goal came from Noble, who found space on the edge of the Argyle penalty area for a powerful shot on target that Duguid deflected with a diving header around his own penalty spot.
For a derby, and such an important match, the Green Army and the object of their adoration both found it hard to get into the game. Luckily, much the same could be said about their respective opponents.
Exeter's antidote to this was to play keep-ball, a bit like Milton Keynes had five days earlier. More chasing and more concentration required by the Pilgrims.
However, the home side's style did at least allow Argyle the opportunity to play the ball when they could get hold of it, and there was some enterprising play down the left which ended when Bolasie's cross went behind the goal.
Karl Duguid was given what looked like a final warning by referee Mark Halsey for what looked some verbals, but, all in all, it was a pretty tame affair as the first half nowhere near lived up to the pre-match expectations.
City should have taken the lead on the half-hour when some neat inter-passing ended with Cureton threading Nardiello through one-on-one with Button.
The Exeter striker toe-ended the ball around Button, but his touch was heavy and it took him away from goal with Nardiello running out of pitch before he could retrieve it.
Nonetheless, the break was indicative of City's growing superiority, especially in being able unpick Argyle's defence, and Curtis Nelson's alertness was key to the Pilgrims surviving more Exeter probing.
Ryan Harley, playing his final home match as a Grecian before completing his move to Swansea, began to have more of an influence on proceedings, and he helped City to again go close when a raid down the right ended with Nardiello being unable to get a crucial touch on the cross.
Argyle did escape the pressure on occasions and might have gone ahead against the run of play just before the interval when three Greens converged on the far post to meet Simon Walton's free-kick without any managing to get a significant touch.
Exeter then survived another scare, borne of their own incompetence, when Richard Duffy inexplicably passed the ball back to his goalkeeper, Artur Krysiak.
Cue the inevitable penalty-area mayhem, with the defensive wall marched back on to the goal-line; some bumping and boring that earned Stéphane Zubar and Troy Archibald-Henville a talking-to; and the inevitably deflected shot, from Walton.
Perhaps, though, the best that could be said for Argyle's first-half endeavours was that they reached the half-time break on level terms and with their goal intact.
That parity did not last long. Within seconds of the restart, the Pilgrims failed to clear their lines and allowed Dunne a clear and clean strike on goal that was simply unstoppable.
Peter Reid's more or less immediate response was to bring on Mason in place of a clearly disgruntled Walton.
Equally clearly, the match was in danger of slipping further out of Argyle's already flimsy grasp, with Exeter looking capable of adding to their lead at any moment.
There was a riposte, with Fallon beginning and ending a move that saw Jim Paterson send over a cross that was just a little too high for the big Kiwi to get a properly directed header on it.
Button came to the rescue and saved well at the feet of Liam Sercombe after more quick feet had released the City midfielder, and then from Nardiello's shot on the spin as City's quick inventiveness continued to shame the Pilgrims.
Rory Patterson joined the action in place of Summerfield as Reid rightly threw caution to the wind.
A long-range shot from Patterson which Krysiak briefly spilled raised the pulse, but the Pole still beat Fallon to the loose ball. Krysiak later held a seeker from Árnason.
Hope was raised when Fallon stroked the ball home after fine work by Bolasie, but that was snuffed out by the linesman's flag. Rightly, it has to be said.
More Bolasie magic ended with Krysiak saving the Argyle speedster's shot, again parrying the ball and again surviving his uncertain goakeeping when mason slipped on the dry muddied goalmouth in trying to reach the loose.
Suddenly, belatedly, Argyle were back in the game. Bolasie had come to life and saw another on-target shot saved by Krysiak at his near post.
Bolasie, again, nearly stole a late equaliser when he rose to meet Fletcher's expertly curled delivery, but the header passed just the wrong side of the post with Krysiak beaten.
Exeter, though, let the storm blow over - with Steve Tully making a fine tackle in the last minute of five added on to deny Patterson - and Argyle were left to wonder what might have been had their opening 75 minutes matched their last 15.
Exeter City (4-4-2): 30 Artur Krysiak; 2 Steve Tully, 3 Richard Duffy, 5 Troy Archibald Henville, 11 Scott Golbourne; 22 Liam Sercombe, 8 David Noble (capt, 6 Matt Taylor 67), 4 James Dunne, 7 Ryan Harley; 12 Jamie Cureton, 10 Daniel Nardiello (20 Richard Logan 82). Substitutes (not used): 14 Bertie Cozic, 18 Billy Jones, 21 Jake Thomson, 28 James Woods (gk), 37 Tom Nicholls.
Argyle (4-5-1): 31 David Button; 2 Karl Duguid, 35 Curtis Nelson, 36 Stéphane Zubar, 29 Jim Paterson; 20 Luke Summerfield (8 Rory Patterson 64), 4 Carl Fletcher (capt), 11 Kári Árnason, 28 Simon Walton (16 Joe Mason 52), 19 Yala Bolasie; 14 Rory Fallon. Substitutes (not used): 1 Romain Larrieu (gk), 3 Bondz N'Gala, 21 Anton Peterlin, 23 Krisztián Timár, 34 Luke Young.
Referee: Mark Halsey.
Attendance: 7,869 (1,169 away).