Wylde 33, Brunt pen 36, 84
by Rob McNichol
ARGYLE took a huge leap towards Sky Bet League 2 promotion with a richly-deserved 3-0 victory against Mansfield Town. In fact, one could say the Pilgrims leapt like a proverbial stag.
Mansfield arrived at Home Park in very fine fettle, but their fearsome antlers were soon shed as the Pilgrims produced a dominant performance to stamp their class on this game. Any talk of ruts looked extremely premature.
The excellent Gregg Wylde put Argyle into a lead just after the half-hour mark, before Ryan Brunt doubled the lead from the spot minutes later. Brunt's second in the closing stages gave Argyle a third goal, and sealed three points they craved, worked for, and achieved.
The inclusion of Graham Carey and Jordon Forster were the main pre-match talking topics. Carey had made a couple of substitute appearances since being injured in Argyle's draw at Dagenham at the end of November, but this was the number 10's first start since his knee injury sustained in that trip to Essex.
Forster, a loan signing from Hibernian, had waited patiently as a substitute for several weeks, and now had his chance to impress from the start, coming in for Kelvin Mellor at right-back.
Notable by their absence were Reuben Reid and Jake Jervis, who were both on the bench. Ryan Brunt led the line from the outset, with Gregg Wylde and Craig Tanner either side of Carey in support.
As one might expect from a game involving two of the league's top four, the game started rather cagily, but Argyle nudged the territorial battle, and carved out a chance or two. Gary Sawyer's deep cross was dealt with poorly by the Stags defence, and Brunt pulled his shot just wide of the post, before Tanner had a sighter from 25 yards that flew not far wide of Scott Shearer's post, although the Mansfield goalkeeper had it covered.
At the other end, Malvind Benning, Mansfield's left-back, sauntered forward, and with Argyle's defence occupied by the visitors' attacking players, had a decent effort from 20 yards that went not too far over Luke McCormick's crossbar.
Benning was suddenly at the heart of the action, and not in a good way for the full-back. First, he provided a moment of light relief, as when retrieving a ball so his side could take a free-kick he skewed the ball miles past his intended target, delaying the game more. ("Are you Wycombe in disguise?" enquired the wags in the Devonport end.) Next, Benning's attempted clearance clattered into Tanner, who then won the footrace for the loose ball, drawing a sliding foul by Benning, who was perhaps fortunate to avoid incurring the game's first caution.
After neat footwork from Tanner, Sawyer and Brunt teamed up again, around the 25-minute mark, with this time Sawyer's dinked cross finding Brunt's head, but he could not angle the ball on goal.
Brunt so nearly got on the end of another cross from the left, this time from Wylde, after a smashing Argyle breakaway move. Tanner tracked back to win the ball before McHugh and then Carey set Wylde away. His square ball was the right ball, but defender Ryan Tafazolli's outstretched leg did enough to prevent the tap in.
Argyle kept on coming, and were having great joy on that flank. Wylde raced away again, and this time had two options in the centre. As Brunt darted to the near post, Tanner pulled off to give the angle. His shot was well saved by Shearer, and Argyle had a corner.
The long cross by Carey was partially cleared by Mansfield, but only to Nelson, hovering. He squared to Wylde, some 20 yards from goal. His first touch was not his best, but his second a belter. A low drive through a crowd suddenly emerged heading for goal, too late to Shearer to reach and get more than a flick on it.
Argyle had their lead, as well as a ton of momentum. Chances continued to come frequently, nearly always down Mansfield's harassed right side. Yet another corner down that flank yielded Argyle's second, deserved goal.
Carey's low corner was sent back to him to try again, and when the ball eventually reached the far post, Peter Hartley went down under pressure from Krystian Pearce. As the assistant referee waved his flag, you could sense the disbelief enveloping Home Park. Could it be true? Had Argyle actually been given a penalty?
Before the pain in the Green Army's arms - sustained by continual pinching - had subsided, Brunt had grabbed the ball and cracked it past Shearer's outstretched right arm. It was Argyle's first penalty since Reuben Reid scored against Tranmere on April 25, 2015 - some 294 days previously.
Chances to rain in on Mansfield's besieged goal. Forster nearly sealed a perfect debut with a short-range header that slammed against a post, and after a goalmouth scramble that seemed to take forever, Carl McHugh nearly contrasted the uncultured ground battle with a beautiful backheeled effort, but it was blocked.
Mansfield has rarely threatened, but in nearly getting a goal back almost scored the most comical goal in Home Park history. After McCormick had fumbled a cross which led to a corner, chaos reigned. As one Argyle player flew Superman-like through the air while being fouled, Tafazolli met the ball smartly. However, it managed to evade a pair of Argyle defenders doing an 'After you, Claude' routine, before another took a complete airshot - all of this taking place in what felt like slow-motion as the ball splodged through the mud. It struck a post and felt into the grateful hands of McCormick. It would have been a tremendous shame for a superb first half to have been blotted by a needless comedy goal.
Fortunately, it was not, and the applause that rang around Home Park when the half-time whistle sounded was entirely deserved.
Mansfield's reaction was to replace midfielder James Baxendale with full-back Dan Alfei, with Lee Collins switching from full-back to central defence, and the Stags reverting to a variation on a 3-5-2 formation.
Argyle started the second half as brightly as they had concluded it a rare Mansfield foray forward nearly got the visitors back in the game. The second of two consecutive corners saw Tafazolli's header loop goalwards, but Brunt, defending the corner from the goal-line, made a superb headed intervention.
After 11 minutes of the second half, Mansfield had used all their substitutes in an effort to change their fortunes. In fairness, it was showing some signs of paying off, as one replacement, Adi Yussef, engineered a good position before firing high into the stand, then it took an excellent retreating challenge by McHugh as another sub, Jack Thomas, looked about to try one from the edge of the area.
There was no way the Stags' new attacking approach would not leave some gaps, though, and with Wylde in irresistible form, Argyle looked a huge threat on the counter attack. Wylde's ball, cut inside to Oscar Threlkeld, gave the on-loan Bolton man a chance to add to the lead, but after a great first touch, he shot just wide with his left foot.
Moments later, Tanner's perfect through-pass left Oscar one-on-one with Shearer, who made a very good stop to keep his side in with any sort of chance.
Argyle had the luxury of introducing their top goalscorer into this mix, with Jervis replacing Tanner with 25 minutes to go. He was soon in the action, crossing for Brunt, who headed on target, but Shearer pouched.
A move, with about quarter of an hour remaining, nearly gave Argyle a glorious third goal. The conclusion saw Forster cross from the right, Brunt flick on and Wylde strike first time, only to see the ball deflected wide.
Carey, who had been quietly effective during his return match, showed his fitness by coming into the game in the closing stages. A shot from the edge of the area forced a smart save from Shearer, before Carey was fouled after skipping two defenders. He took the free-kick he earned, and placed it just wide.
The game was finally put to bed, if such a statement were needed, with five minutes to go, as Jervis' measured cross was knocked home by the hugely-deserving Brunt.
With two minutes to go, Brunt came so close to grabbing his hat-trick, but his header from Carey's glorious cross was a little too deft. Seconds later, Brunt was replaced by Reid to a rapturous reception. What luxury to be able to make such a replacement.
And what luxury to look at a table that sees a gap between Argyle and fourth place measuring double figures.
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 23 Luke McCormick; 28 Jordon Forster, 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 6 Peter Hartley, 3 Gary Sawyer; 4 Carl McHugh, 26 Oscar Threlkeld; 27 Craig Tanner (14 Jake Jervis 65), 10 Graham Carey, 11 Gregg Wylde (16 Ben Purrington 85); 17 Ryan Brunt (9 Reuben Reid 89).Substitutes: 2 Kelvin Mellor, 7 Daniel Nardiello, 21 James Bittner (gk), 24 Louis Rooney.
Booked: Hartley 45, Carey 81.
Mansfield (4-4-2): 1 Scott Shearer; 6 Lee Collins (capt), 5 Krystian Pearce, 15 Ryan Tafazolli, 3 Malv Benning; 8 Chris Clements, 24 Jamie McGuire, 31 James Baxendale (27 Dan Alfei half-time), 17 Matt Blair (20 Jack Thomas 56); 9 Chris Beardsley (18 Adi Yussuf 53), 10 Matt Green. Substitutes: 7 Adam Chapman, 12 Brian Jensen (gk), 19 Reggie Lambe, 23 Sean Kavanagh.
Booked: Clements 79.
Referee: Brendan Malone.
Attendance: 7,494 (190 away).