Reid pen 7, Holmes-Dennis 37, Alessandra 81
Power 34, Odejayi 89
by Rob McNichol
IT is now so close, we can taste it.
Argyle's 3-2 win over Tranmere Rovers, thanks to goals from Reuben Reid, Tareiq Holmes-Dennis and Lewis Alessandra, coupled with Southend's 1-0 win against Luton, means Argyle go into next weekend's final game of the season three points ahead of the Hatters - and with a superior goal difference to the tune of eight.
It would now take an almost unprecedented set of results - Argyle losing 4-0 and Luton to the same tune, for example - to deny the Pilgrims a place in the play-offs.
Reid opened the scoring at Home Park from the penalty spot, only for Max Power to equalise just after the half hour mark. Holmes-Dennis restored Argyle's lead with a cracking effort almost immediately, and Alessandra looked to have sealed it late in the second half. Odejayi's late goal for Tranmere sets hearts a flutter, but Argyle held on.
If the atmosphere at the beginning of the game seemed different, it was because it was almost totally unique situation for both sides. Tranmere have been members of the Football League since 1921, and despite a scare when a last-day, last-gasp win kept them in the league in 1987, they have stayed unmoved ever since. They are not used to fighting to stay up, and coming to Devon and getting a win seemed like it was utterly crucial.
Argyle have twice previously been in the play-offs since their introduction in 1987, but each time qualifying for them has been a secondary prize. Closing games of the 1993-94 and 1995-96 seasons involved the Pilgrims trying to scramble into the automatic promotion slots, and ultimately falling just short.
John Sheridan had made one change to the team that had lost the previous week at Carlisle United, with Kelvin Mellor being recalled in place of Gethin Jones at right wing-back.
Mellor had a very bright start to the game, involved more than once on the right flank in good positions, and it was from a good piece of work by him that the opening goal stemmed. A high ball was well-brought down by Mellor, who then played a bright ball into Lewis Alessandra. After a cut back to Bobby Reid, a cross was only partially cleared, and Anthony O'Connor knocked the ball down to Dominic Blizzard. Max Power, in his haste to stem the Argyle attack, lunged in, bringing down the midfielder, with referee Gavin Ward awarding a penalty.
Reuben Reid assumed his usual duties from 12 yards, and sent Owain Fon Williams the wrong way, slotting him his 20th goal of the season.
Rovers, playing for their existence in the league, fought back quickly, with the experience Jason Koumas at the forefront of efforts. His excellent right wing cross from a short corner whipped right across the face of the goal, with Rory Donnelly just unable to get anything on it as it zipped by.
Koumas then had a shot from range saved by McCormick, with the game plenty wide open.
Tranmere's next chance saw a clipped ball past the Argyle defence find Donnelly in an offside position, but with no flag to halt progress, he was through on Luke McCormck. The newly-crowned Argyle Player of the Season, though, pulled off the kind of save to which we have become accustomed, and the danger was over.
At the other, the lively Alessandra left two Rovers defenders in his wake before his shot from a tight angle flew just wide.
Tranmere were never going to come to Home Park to try to extract merely a draw, given their precarious position, but in going a goal down it had given them even more impetus to surge forward in search of goals. Argyle were having to rally hard to combat this, but it did mean that gaps were available on the counter attack, and a calm Pilgrims side were looking to exploit that.
The Alessandra and Reid combo, which has worked well for Argyle all season, nearly came to fruition once again. First, Alessandra tried to thread through to an onrushing Reid, who was just beaten to it by the goalkeeper, before Reuben tried to repay the compliment, playing a clever ball behind the Rovers back-line that was only just too heavy for his strike partner to latch onto.
Tranmere, though, drew level, thanks to a smart combination move of their own. Koumas took a right wing corner low to the edge of the box, where Power, the man who had earlier given away the penalty, met the ball perfectly, sending a arching shot beautifully into the far corner of the net.
The goal sent Tranmere fans, gathered in number and making plenty of noise in blocks 22 and 23, into rapture, but their joy at restoring parity was short lived. An Argyle corner was half-cleared, finding Alessandra on the edge of the area. Trying to lay the ball off to Holmes-Dennis, his pass was intercepted. Holmes-Dennis, though, was unperturbed, and he stole the ball back brilliantly, before demonstrating the perfect way to notch your first Argyle goal.
The ball was struck perfectly, from 25 yards, directly towards the Tranmere fans. The only reason it did not reach them was that there was a net in the way. To the tortured Tranmere faithful, fearing for their Football League lives, the ball may have flown in horrific slow-motion. To everyone else, it travelled like a beautiful missile; one of the best goals scored at Home Park this season.
Argyle continued their buoyancy into the second period, with Reuben Reid proving the nuisance we know he can be. After two bustling runs that unsettled Tranmere early in the second period, he received the ball after more good work by Mellor, and Reid's left foot drive was smartly turned round the post by Fon Williams.
Understandably, Tranmere were looking edgy, and on a slick surface, mistakes were inevitable. Adam Dugdale's dithering, followed by a loose ball back to his goalkeeper, saw Alessandra close down the custodian and block the clearance in one of those 'could-go-anywhere' moments. Fortunately for Tranmere, it flew into block 2.
Tranmere brought on a Green - George, of that ilk - to play at the top of a diamond in midfield, of which Koumas took up a spot on the left. As influential as Koumas could be when on the ball, he was not likely to stick to a flank, and Mellor, who had already looked back to his swashbuckling best on the right, would continue to find space.
After left-back Matt Hill was replaced by Iain Hume, signalling another change of shape, and Tranmere were yet to adjust when Mellor was given the freedom of Central Park, or so it seemed. His cross was well met by Alessandra, and it took a marvellous, twisting save by Fon Williams to keep Rovers in it.
Koumas and Green worked another neat set-play, fifteen minutes from time, when the former dummied to take a free-kick and was played in by the latter. Koumas' shot deflected over a stranded McCormick, but was headed off the line by a frantically retreating Carl McHugh.
Moments later, a ball bobbled around the area with Hume and Odejayi lurking, but Peter Hartley's intervention was enough to save the day.
It was now all Tranmere, as one might expect from a team sensing imminent doom. Power cut in from the left and tested McCormick from range, with Rovers firmly in command.
Or were they? After a sustained spell of pressure, Tranmere suddenly looked extremely vulnerable to the counter attack. Substitute Zak Ansah played in Alessandra and looked for a return - when he got it, he took half a second too long to shoot, and the chance was gone. Moments later, Bobby Reid's cross from the round found Ansah, who this time beat the goalkeeper, but somehow prodded wide.
Finally, Argyle got it right, as a desperate Tranmere could not deal with Ansah's run in behind. He squared to the unmarked Alessandra, who rolled home.
Minutes later, a cheer erupted from a section of the Grandstand with the quickest smartphones. There followed an eruption from the Devonport end, that spread around the ground. Southend had scored, with ten men, at home to Luton, and it was as significant as anything that had occurred at Home Park.
Argyle (3-5-2): 23 Luke McCormick; 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 16 Carl McHugh , 29 Peter Hartley; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 17 Bobby Reid, 19 Anthony O'Connor, 11 Dominic Blizzard (14 Tyler Harvey 88), 13 Tareiq Holmes-Dennis; 7 Lewis Alessandra (8 Jason Banton 88), 9 Reuben Reid (27 Zak Ansah 66). Substitutes (not used): 1 James Bittner (gk), 6 Ollie Norburn, 20 Gethin Jones, 28 Ryan Brunt.
Booked: O'Connor 75
Tranmere (4-4-2): 1 Owain Fon Williams; 5 Michael Ihiekwe, 18 Adam Dugdale, 12 Janoi Donacien, 25 Matt Hill (34 Iain Hume 66); 4 Max Power, 22 Steve Jennings (capt), 14 Marc Laird (10 George Green 59), 8 Jason Koumas; 29 Rory Donnelly, 9 Kayode Odejayi. Substitutes: 15 Jake Kirby, 19 Lee Molyneux, 20 Sam Robertson (gk), 21 Liam Davies, 24 Evan Gumbs.
Booked: Dugdale 18, Ihiekwe 83, Power 86
Referee: Gavin Ward.
Attendance: 9,769 (550 away).