Argyle 0Oxford 2
Kitson 33, Constable 58
by Rob McNichol
A goal in each half from fellow play-off contenders Oxford United put the biggest dent yet into Argyle’s hopes of escaping Sky Bet League 2.
Experienced frontman Dave Kitson scored a facile opener for the U’s midway through the first half, before his strike partner James Constable scored a goal of real quality after 15 minutes of the second half.
In between, Argyle defender Maxime Blanchard was sent off for a second caution, making an already tricky task seem somewhat impossible.
Argyle now sit four points behind Oxford and Southend United, and three behind York City, in the scramble to reach the play-off positions.
John Sheridan recalled Lewis Alessandra to the starting line-up, with the 12-goal forward having recovered from an injury suffered in Argyle’s win over Chesterfield 25 days earlier. He joined Reuben Reid in the front-line, with Marvin Morgan the man to drop the bench. In turn, Ben Purrington dropped out of the match-day squad.
Oxford’s manager Gary Waddock had lost all three of his games since taking over at the Kassam, and rang the changes for the trip west. James Constable and Dave Kitson provided a brand new strike force, replacing David Connolly and Deane Smalley. Nicky Wroe and Callum O’Dowda also came in, with Andrew Whing and Scott Davies dropping to the bench.
The game kicked off at 3.07 as a mark of respect to the 96 that lost their lives at Hillsborough 25 years ago, and was preceded by a minute’s silence, flawlessly observed within the ground.
A Neal Trotman clearance fell at the feet of Wroe within the opening three minutes, but quick reactions from Pilgrims skipper Conor Hourihane snuffed out the chance before it had a chance to develop. The chance had been engineered initially by winger Ryan Williams, who minutes later clipped a dangerous cross into the area, only for Max Blanchard to react the quickest.
Oxford’s start was not that of a team out of form. James Constable was the next to manoeuvre into the right hand channel, standing a ball up for O’Dowda, who contrived to miss the target from five yards when meeting the ball first with his head.
Argyle’s first real attack and chance came after a dozen minutes, with Tyler Harvey and Hourihane crafting an opening for Reid, but his left-footed cross-cum-shot was cut out and gathered by the U’s goalkeeper.
Oxford certainly had the better of the opening quarter of the game. Midway through the first half Kitson caught a ball sweetly from 30 yards, but Jake Cole time enough to take the catch easily enough.
From a long throw-in, Argyle partially cleared, but a ball pumped back into the area found centre-back Michael Raynes in space. His knock-down looked destined for Constable at the far post until Blanchard, at full stretch, nodded the ball out for a corner. From the flag-kick, the ball travelled to Wroe, whose shot through a crowd of players looked a sure goal until Cole made a tremendous save low to his right.
After Blanchard was booked for a foul on O’Dowda, Oxford took the free-kick that gave them the deserved lead. Williams found sufficient space at the pass post to volley a measured ball across the six-yard box, and Kitson could barely miss from two yards.
Argyle looked to respond, as Paul Wotton’s floated ball found Reid with his back to goal. He laid on Nathan Thomas, who cut inside his man and saw a deflected near-post shot parried wide by Clarke.
After a further spell of United pressure that yielded no real chances, Thomas had an even better chance to level. His early good work had set Alessandra away, and the Argyle number seven’s diligence saw him eventually stand a cross to the far post. Thomas met it, but with insufficient power to beat Clarke, who clawed it away. Reid met the rebound, but it was deflected away.
At half-time, the only assessment could really be that Oxford had deserved their lead, and that Argyle had been presented with a serious hill to climb.
Within five minutes of the second half restarting, Argyle made their hill a far more onerous mountain.
Kitson jinked around Blanchard, and the Frenchman instinctively threw out an arm to haul him back and halt his progress. The cynical nature of the foul meant an automatic caution to add to his earlier yellow card. Blanchard was off and Argyle had become a goal down and a man down to the team one point and one place above them.
The lead was soon nearly doubled. Andres Gurrieri flubbed a clearance, and Wroe, pouncing on the loose ball, drove a shot from the edge of the area that thumped off the underside of the crossbar.
Argyle had their own chance, though, with Nelson heading Gurrieri’s free-kick goalwards, only to be stopped by a truly incredible save by Clarke. Take all the superlatives you want and add them all together – it was a wonderful stop.
Despite the numerical disadvantage Argyle had to attack and attempt to get back in the game. Dominic Blizzard and Enoch Showunmi were brought on for Wotton and Tyler Harvey, but when an attack involving Showunmi broke down, Oxford countered and doubled their advantage.
O’Dowda ran towards Argyle’s back-line at pace – with numbers reduced, the Green defenders were indecisive about whether or not to close him down. By the time they did, he had played in Constable, who fired in with a tremendous strike from 20 yards.
To their credit, Argyle plugged away looking for goals to get them back in the game. A superb through-ball by Hourihane got Gurrieri in behind Oxford, but as he clipped the ball over Clarke it drifted wide.
Naturally, in pushing up, Argyle left holes that Oxford tried to exploit. Constable got behind substitute Durrell Berry and look destined for his second goal, but the Argyle man made an excellent recovery to rob him as he was about to shoot from close range.
Reid got the better of Jake Wright in a prolonged physical tussle, wriggling free to create a chance. His cut back to Alessandra was cut out, though, and United broke away. Constable fed Williams, but his shot was high and wide.
The same duo combined moments later to release Williams again, but when forced wide by Nelson he could only shoot into the side netting. Alfie Potter then sprung beyond the Argyle defence but screwed his effort wide.
In the closing stages United were content to see out the remaining minutes to record a comfortable victory. Good Friday now needs to be a truly great Friday for Argyle to get back into contention for the top seven.
(3-5-2): 1 Jake Cole; 4 Maxime Blanchard, 16 Neal Trotman, 17 Curtis Nelson; 27 Andres Gurrieri, 18 Tyler Harvey (29 Enoch Showunmi 59), 15 Paul Wotton (11 Dominic Blizzard 59), 6 Conor Hourihane (capt), 19 Nathan Thomas (2 Durrell Berry 70); 9 Reuben Reid, 7 Lewis Alessandra. Substitutes
(not used): 8 Rommy Boco, 10 Marvin Morgan, 20 Jason Banton, 32 Cameron Dawson (gk).
: Blanchard 32
(4-4-2): 1 Ryan Clarke; 13 David Hunt, 4 Michael Raynes, 6 Jake Wright, 3 Tom Newey; 15 Ryan Williams, 22 Nicky Wroe, 35 Callum O'Dowda (11 Alfie Potter 71); 8 David Kitson (16 Andrew Whing 82), 9 James Constable (18 Scott Davies 89). Substitutes
(not used): 17 Danny Rose, 21 Max Crocombe (gk), 24 David Connolly, 34 Matt Bevans.
: Mick Russell.
: 8,161 (451 away).