Campbell 70, Roberts 84
by Rob McNichol
ARGYLE'S suffered their second home defeat of the Sky Bet League 2 season, in front of their second highest crowd of the campaign, after two second half goals earned Oxford United a rare win on their travels.
The attendance inside Home Park was marginally over 11,000, but after a third of the match 11 turned into 10 on the pitch. Teenager Aaron Bentley was sent off just over half an hour into a game that the Pilgrims were leading 1-0 - and frankly cruising.
The reduced Pilgrims were not able to cling on to their advantage, and second half goals from substitute John Campbell and James Roberts were enough to turn the tables.
Despite the 2-0 reverse at Newport County two days previous, John Sheridan retained faith in the same eleven for the third game in succession. The only change to the eighteen was the return of Dominic Blizzard to the bench, at the expense of River Allen.
Oxford, making three changes, were the first to make a mark on the game. Wes Burns, playing on the left wing for the visitors, looked fleet of foot when driving into the area and clipping a highly inviting cross into the six-yard area, but found no team-mate willing to gamble.
At the other end, Kelvin Mellor made Tareiq Holmes-Dennis briefly resemble a stray dog chasing his own tail as he pirouetted and headed for goal. He opted for a similar centre to Burns at the other end, but overhit his attempt to play Reuben Reid in.
Continuing the pattern, Josh Ruffels crept in behind on Argyle's right flank of defence, and sent another ball scurrying across the face of goal, with no-one showing the desire to gobble up the late Christmas present.
Argyle's next chance came again via Mellor. This time, making a clever run inside, he was picked out by an equally smart ball by Ollie Norburn. He lined the ball up to drive with his left foot from the edge of the box, but failed to catch the sweet spot, and the ball tamely rolled through to Ryan Clarke in the Oxford goal.
Before the 20-minute mark, Argyle had their lead. Norburn had enjoyed an eye-catching opening to the game and, intercepting a stray ball out of the Oxford defence, did well to pick out Alessandra dashing beyond the hastily recovering United rearguard. Clarke emerged from his goal to attempt to deal with the threat, but Alessandra calmly drifted beyond the goalkeeper and placed into the unattended net.
It looked like being 2-0 in eerily similar fashion just moments later. This time Reuben Reid released the flying number seven, but Alessandra was this time caught but Oxford defenders, keen to show they had learned their lesson.
Argyle were showing the confidence you might expect from a team with a home record such as they have. A patient build-up from a partially cleared corner ended with Bobby Reid rattling a shot into the side-netting, then - for a third time - Alessandra got behind United again. This time, the goalscorer's touch let him down a shade, and after being closed down, he shot over the bar.
After Burns weakly shot wide from inside the box at one end, he brought down Bobby Reid at the other for an Argyle free-kick. The cross by Andy Kellett was cleared, but eventually worked back to Aaron Bentley, who drew a save at his feet by Clarke.
Sadly, it was Bentley's penultimate act of the game. His last was to demonstrate the impetuousness of youth and inexperience when launching himself into Sam Long, and an inevitable red card - Argyle's first of the season - followed. A game that Argyle had utterly dominated for 33 minutes suddenly took on a brand new complexion.
In truth, Argyle saw out the quarter hour or so until half-time with the minimum of fuss - but in a week where the remaining ten Pilgrims had already played a game on a heavy surface some 48 hours earlier, surviving the second half, you sensed, would be a task of growing difficulty.
Oxford manager Michael Appleton, presumably perturbed at his side's inability to cause any problems, introduced Callum O'Dowda at halt-time in the stead of Michael Collins, and shifted Burns - comfortably Oxford's best first-half performer - into the middle, behind lone striker James Roberts.
Long, who as well as being on the end of Bentley's tackle, had been cautioned and then warned for his own offences in the first 45, was withdrawn, with Johnny Mullins taking his place at right back. Mullins got forward early in the half to stand a decent ball to the far post, where O'Dowda's header was saved low down by McCormick.
Argyle did not emerge clinging to their slender lead like a childhood toy, though. It seemed the mission was to at least double the lead before steps would be taken to drop off and protect it. Reuben Reid did well to cut in off the left and test Clarke at his near post, then, after Kellett's dangerous cross was bundled away, Lee Cox tested Clarke further.
By the time that John Campbell was introduced as United's final substitution halfway through the second period, Argyle seemed to have settled into their pattern and demonstrated that they had the formula to keep Oxford at bay. However, a free-kick just inside the Pilgrims half proved their undoing. A lofted ball into the box was flicked on by Dunkley, and as it pinballed around, Campbell was able to conjure the ball over the line.
Argyle seemed unimpressed with the notion of simply defending a point, and looked like regaining the advantage when Anthony O'Connor tried to turn home Kellett's cross, then nearly pounced on the rebound after Clarke's save.
At the other end, a cross by Campbell was almost turned into his own net by a scrambling Carl McHugh, with McCormick having to make a tremendous save to maintain parity.
It could not be maintained, though, and James Roberts was able to give Oxford the lead - and three precious points - when he curled a fine shot over McCormick and into the corner of the net in front of the nearly 400 visiting supporters who must have quite frankly been thanking lucky stars, as well as the lucky scarfs handed to them prior to kick off.
Happy New Year to all Pilgrims - although this was a rotten way to conclude 2014, let us remember the improvement shown during the 12 months, and here's to a successful 2015.
Argyle (3-5-2): 23 Luke McCormick; 28 Anthony O'Connor, 16 Carl McHugh, 25 Aaron Bentley; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 4 Lee Cox, 17 Bobby Reid, 6 Ollie Norburn, 13 Andy Kellett; 7 Lewis Alessandra, 9 Reuben Reid (capt). Substitutes
: 1 James Bittner (gk), 3 Ben Purrington, 8 Jason Banton, 10 Marvin Morgan, 11 Dominic Blizzard, 14 Tyler Harvey, 19 Nathan Thomas.
B Reid 52, Norburn 62, Alessandra 90.
Oxford United (4-2-3-1)
: 1 Ryan Clarke; 22 Sam Long (5 Johnny Mullins half-time), 33 Cheyenne Dunkley, 6 Jake Wright, 34 Tareiq Holmes-Dennis; 16 Andy Whing, 14 Josh Ruffels; 10 Danny Hylton, 19 Michael Collins (15 Callum O'Dowda half-time), 26 Wes Burns (36 John Campbell 68); 31 James Roberts. Substitutes (not used)
: 7 Danny Rose, 21 Max Crocombe (gk), 24 Josh Ashby, 30 Sam Humphreys.
: Long 32.
: Andy Davies.
:11,020 (392 away).