Sheffield United 3
Baxter 55 pen, 62 pen, McNulty 90
by Rob McNichol
THE twelve days of Christmas are around the corner, we are told; this FA Cup game resulted in three tense pens - two past the keeper's gloves - and no Argyle to be found in round three.
Sheffield United of Sky Bet League 1 advanced at the expense of Argyle in an encounter that hinged on shots from the penalty mark.
Normally, a penalty shoot-out comes at the end of a drawn replay, but it was a miss from the spot by Reuben Reid at the start of the second half, followed by two conversions at the other end by Jose Baxter, that put this game beyond the Pilgrims. A late third goal by Marc McNulty concluded matters for a Blades side that looked unlucky to win in such a fashion after the opening exchanges.
With a change of competition came a change of shape. The system involving three central defenders was shelved in favour of a flat-back four, and with the change came the return of Ben Purrington, last seen being stretchered off injured at Accrington in September, now returning to the left-back slot. Also back in the team was Jason Banton, out of the starting eleven since the 1-0 home defeat to Wycombe, but having made a promising cameo as a substitute at Mansfield two weeks ago. Missing out were Lee Cox, who dropped to the bench, and Bobby Reid, requested to sit this one out by parent club Bristol City.
The game started at a fair clip. Argyle showed an early urge to get forward and remind their hosts of their intent. Banton in particular showed a willingness, playing centrally behind Reid, to get on the ball and affect the game. Kelvin Mellor also made an early, typically bombastic, run down the right flank, and it took an excellent tackle by Harris to halt his progress.
United though, as one might expect, did have a great deal of the early possession and territory advantage, although Argyle restricted them to few simple chances. A poke towards goal parried away to relative safety by Luke McCormick was the sum of their serious chances in the opening twenty minutes, although it took an assistant's flag - and a well-drilled offside trap - to halt Higdon when clean through.
At the midway point of the half, Argyle looked to have sprung the Blades' own rearguard. A perfectly timed exchange by Andy Kellett and Banton put the former through, and it took a bobble and some good attention by Chris Basham to make the promising attack fizzle out.
Lewis Alessandra then pounced upon a loose ball to burst down the right, squaring for Banton, who pulled his 20-yard shot wide. The increase in Argyle's attacking threat, coupled with a few stray passes by the men in red and white, was causing a few disgruntled mumbles amongst the home support.
Momentum was with the Pilgrims. Dominic Blizzard cut out a ball meant for Migdon, and set Reuben Reid on his way. The ball went via Alessandra and Banton before being laid back to Blizzard, who shot left-footed from the edge of the area. A sprawling Mark Howard could not get near it, but the ball found its way just wide of the post.
United hit back quickly, reminding Argyle of the might of the challenge, with a tidy move down the right that ended with full-back Ryan Flynn shooting not far wide of McCormick's left-hand post.
Jose Baxter headed wide from a Blades free-kick, before Argyle looked to hit on the break once more. Curtis Nelson intercepted a pass, danced between two attendants, and set off. He released Reid, carried on his run, and very nearly met the cross that followed. It took an excellent piece of defending by Basham to prevent the Argyle skipper from finishing off a move he was very much the architect of.
Seconds later, the increasingly-dangerous Banton was felled on the edge of the area, with Alessandra clipping the resultant free-kick not far over.
Despite the upswing in Pilgrims pressure, the good work was nearly undone when Anthony O'Connor made a rare error, dwelling on the ball and getting caught in possession. Fortunately for him, as United broke with a man over, their communication let them down, and O'Connor was able to gratefully retrieve the situation.
The preceding paragraphs may give the impression that the game was all Argyle. This was firmly not the case, and Sheffield were frequently able to keep the ball well for long stretches. However, Argyle did such a good job of marshalling affairs that noteworthy Blades attacks numbered very few. Their best source of attacking intent was frequently their right flank, with Jamal Campbell-Ryce a simmering presence.
One assumes, then, that Campbell-Ryce must have picked up a first half injury, given that he was withdrawn during the interval, with Marc McNulty taking his place.
Whether it was this that buoyed Argyle will remain an unknown, but what is certain is that Alessandra got in behind United and was hauled down by McEveley for an undoubted penalty. Reid sent the goalkeeper the wrong way from the spot - but unfortunately had opened his body up to an extent that he shot over the bar.
The fact that the home fans cheered the miss so loudly probably covered up the noise of those breathing heavily with relief. A mini sense of 'our name is on the cup' style fortune swept from the stands to the pitch, and Stefan Scougall went closer with a shot on the turn from twenty yards than Reid had with a free potshot from twelve.
Soon, it was United's turn to take their chance from the penalty spot. Peter Hartley got caught on the ball by McNulty, and as the substitute headed towards the area, he was pulled back by Purrington. The initial contact was undoubtedly outside the area, but continued past the white line. Baxter took the kick powerfully to McCormick's right and into the corner of the net.
The Blades doubled their lead from another spot kick just seven minutes later. Jamie Murphy made an incursion into the area, and was hauled back as he shaped to shoot. The penalty was fairly certain - what was a little more hazy was the fact that it seemed to be Hartley that committed the foul, though Nelson was the one shown the yellow card.
Baxter took aim for a second time from the spot, and although McCormick guessed correctly that he would go for the other side, the strike was too powerful, and the Blades had a two-goal cushion.
John Sheridan's response saw him withdraw Purrington and Banton, replacing them with Cox and Ollie Norburn, and reverting to a familiar 3-5-2 formation. Norburn was quickly in action, as he was able to set Alessandra away for an apparent two-on-one scenario, with United mysteriously having pushed men forward in abundant numbers, leaving Alessandra and Reid in acres of space. However, the interchange between the two was read by the retreating Blades, and the danger ended abruptly.
United had a glorious for them - and Baxter - to make it three, but the former Everton man dragged his shot wide with just McCormick to beat. McNulty also went very close late on as United looked to show no sign of offering any Christmas gifts to their visitors.
Indeed, McNulty scored from close range late on to add an extra layer of icing to an already decorated cake.
Sheffield United (4-4-2): 1 Mark Howard; 7 Ryan Flynn, 6 Chris Basham, 19 Jay McEveley, 3 Bob Harris; 20 Jamal Campbell-Ryce (12 Mark McNulty h-t), 10 Stefan Scougall (22 Louis Reed 76), 8 Michael Doyle (capt), 9 Jamie Murphy; 21 Michael Migdon, 11 Jose Baxter (34 Florent Cuvelier 85). Substitutes (not used): 17 Harrison McGahey, 24 Iain Turner (gk), 27 Terry Kennedy, 31 Otis Khan.
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 23 Luke McCormick; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 29 Peter Hartley, 3 Ben Purrington (6 Ollie Norburn 71); 28 Anthony O'Connor, 11 Dominic Blizzard (14 Tyler Harvey 80); 7 Lewis Alessandra, 8 Jason Banton (4 Lee Cox 71), 13 Andy Kellett; 9 Reuben Reid. Substitutes (not used): 1 James Bittner (gk), 24 River Allen, 25 Aaron Bentley.
Booked: Purrington 54, Nelson 61.
Referee: Gary Sutton.
Attendance: 7,348 (638 away).