Carey 9, Slew 60
by Rob McNichol
ARGYLE rose to the top of the Sky Bet League Two table for the first time this season with their sixth consecutive victory in all competitions.
No Argyle team have achieved that in a single season since Paul Sturrock's title winning Pilgrims managed the feat in the glorious season of 2003-04, but this season's incarnation made us sweat to get there against Cambridge United, at Home Park.
The Pilgrims, for 80 minutes, were dominant against bottom-of-the-table Cambridge, leading via goals from Graham Carey and Jordan Slew, but a goal by Medo Elito led to a nervous denouement to the match.
Argyle held on, though, and returned the summit of the division - a position they vacated in January of this year.
Derek Adams made five changes to the side that had won 1-0 against Cheltenham seven day previously. Oscar Threlkeld, Connor Smith, Ryan Donaldson, Jake Jervis and Jimmy Spencer all dropped to the bench, replaced by Gary Miller, David Fox, Slew, Craig Tanner and Paul-Arnold Garita.
Following his eye-catching substitute appearance against the Robins, Garita was tasked with leading the line, with Slew flanking him to the left, and Carey to the right., Tanner played centrally, in support of the three. Fox joined Yann Songo'o in central midfield, protecting the back four of Miller, Nauris Bulvitis, Sonny Bradley and Ben Purrington. They, in turn, were the shield for goalkeeper and captain, Luke McCormick.
Bradley, who had scored the injury-time winning goal in the Cheltenham victory, tried to emulate his goal - only a little earlier - when heading over Carey's corner after just three minutes.
Carey has been nominated for the Sky Bet League Two goal of the month for his stunning solo effort against Mansfield, but his opening goal on nine minutes owed a lot to two excellent contributions from team-mates. After showing great control to bring a ball down from the sky, Slew squared up his marker, and used his not inconsiderable pace to get around the outside. He timed his pass into Purrington as well as the Argyle full-back had timed his underlapping run, and Ben advanced towards Cambridge's goal.
Purrington had to make a decision between several tasty options, but decided that a cut back to Carey was the wisest. It was a good selection. Carey, with the ball arriving perfectly, lashed home first time past a shell-shocked Will Norris in the Cambridge goal.
Shortly after, Argyle came very close to doubling the lead. Purrington was involved again, arriving at the far post to get on the end of Miller's cross, but heading wide, as Argyle's two full-backs joined forces to pin the league's bottom side back.
Fox was making his first League start, following a pair of effective appearances from the bench, and two starts in cup competitions, but soon settled in, and was the pivot for many of the better moves Argyle made. He was involved twice in a long build-up that saw Garita gather the ball at his feet with his back to goal, but turn powerfully and shoot low. Norris did well to hold the ball that whizzed low to his left.
Slew, a former Cambridge player, that asked a similar question of Norris, but this time hit the shot even closer to Norris, who gratefully clutched again.
Tanner was next to try his luck. He had started a move in his own half with a chest down to Songo'o, then upon return receipt of the ball, carried it forward. He played Carey in, who committed a man, returned the ball to the now unmarked Tanner, who lashed powerfully and low, but into the side netting.
Although Argyle were totally dominant, the lead was still just a single goal, and there was a reminder that one moment of quality from the visitors could alter the game drastically when right-back Brad Halliday shot from long range. McCormick confidently watched it go past his left-hand post, it was not a million miles away.
After Carey had again made an incursion deep into United territory, then cut back for Songo'o to have a shot blocked, Cambridge manager Shaun Derry decided enough was enough, and made an early change.
It may have been enforced on him a little; the player coming off, Max Clark, had taken a well-struck Carey pass full in the face, and required the footballing equivalent of a standing eight count. However, Derry used it to make a tactical switch, as defensive midfielder Clark was replaced by the attacking Adam McGurk.
The substitute nearly made an instant impact, getting on the end of Piero Mingoia's right wing cross and heading not far wide, in easily Cambridge's best chance to that point. The five minutes building to the half-time interval were comfortably Cambridge's strongest, but Argyle still not look anything other than in command.
Argyle made a change of their own at half-time. Gary Miller, who had a taken a couple of blows in the first half himself, did not emerge for the second period, so Oscar Threlkeld came on in his stead.
Inside three minutes, Threlkeld took a throw on the right wing, got the ball back from Carey, and clipped the ball into the centre. Garita, keeping defenders in his orbit, contrived the space to head goalwards, but it was straight at Norris.
Cambridge nearly equalised with a touch of fortune, as McGurk's cross was accidentally on target, and McCormick had to push the ball out from near his near post. If it looked like the Pilgrims' goalkeeper had spared blushes with the first save, then a second, from Joe Pigott flick header from a corner, was stunning. The ball was racing past McCormick to his left, it seemed, but the lightning reactions of Argyle's 'keeper preserved a run without a goal conceded stretching back an increasing, and impressive, distance.
Despite Cambridge's notable improvements, their pressure counted for zero, as Argyle doubled their lead just before the hour mark. Tanner drifted into a inside-right position, and was played through by Carey. Tanner waited until the optimum moment to slide a gorgeous ball across the face of goal, where Slew coasted in at the far post to smash home. The cross was only missing a bow and a nice tag from Auntie Gladys, so beautifully was it gift-wrapped by Tanner.
Argyle, having plateaued a little in between goals, were playing with their tails up again. Tanner played another perfect pass, this time to Carey, on the edge of the area. The Irishman's first touch was perfect, and his fierce effort not far wide. He was at it again not long after, when an ambitious pass from Garita made it to Carey, only this time for the number ten's shot to be pushed over by Norris.
McCormick safely palmed wide a shot from the lively Medy Elito, as Cambridge sought a way back into the game. A double substitution from Derry, bringing on Harrison Dunk and Uche Ikpeazu for Pigott and Taylor, was his last throw of some dice he presumably blew on, for luck, very hard.
Argyle were now playing with the confidence one might expect of a team looking set for a sixth straight win. Carey's clip into Garita's feet led to a sublime, and well-judged, backheel which played in Connor Smith, who has only just been introduced, for Slew. Smith dummied his man beautifully, but shot high and over with his left foot.
Cambridge showed another brief threat, when Mingoia's header drifted not far over, following Halliday's cross, and then actually gave themselves a genuine lifeline when Elito latched onto a McGurk throughball to slide confidently into the net.
There were still ten minutes to go when Elito halved Argyle's lead, but Adams was not in the mood to sit on the lead. David Goodwillie came on for Fox with six minutes remaining, as Argyle sought to get the ball higher up the pitch and keep it.
It did not prevent an increasingly nervy finish for the Green Army, though. Luke Berry's free-kick struck the bar, with a little help from the longest of McCormick's fingernails, as 7,000 people simultaneously pondered the decades old stumper: 'why can things never just be simple?'
Argyle held out, though, and victory was met with a heady combination of elation and relief at the final whistle.
That Sturrock team of 2003-04 are still a step ahead of this season's bunch, as they actually won seven on the bounce. Their seventh was a 7-0 victory against Chesterfield. It would be quite something to emulate that in next week's match.
Remind us who we playing, again?
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 23 Luke McCormick (capt); 2 Gary Miller (18 Oscar Threlkeld half-time), 5 Nauris Bulvitis, 15 Sonny Bradley, 16 Ben Purrington; 24 David Fox (7 David Goodwillie 84), 4 Yann Songo'o; 10 Graham Carey, 27 Craig Tanner, 8 Jordan Slew (6 Connor Smith 71); 26 Paul-Arnold Garita. Substitutes (not used): 9 Jimmy Spencer, 11 Ryan Donaldson, 14 Jake Jervis, 21 Vincent Dorel (gk).
Cambridge United (4-1-4-1): 1 Will Norris; 28 Brad Halliday, 6 Leon Legge, 16 Tom Dallison, 2 Greg Taylor (11 Harrison Dunk 63); 20 Max Clark (17 Adam McGurk 39); 7 Piero Mingoia, 24 Conor Newton, 8 Luke Berry, 21 Medy Elito; 23 Joe Pigott (26 Uche Ikpeazu 63). Substitutes (not used): 10 Ben Williamson, 13 David Gregory (gk), 14 Josh Coulson, 19 Jake Gosling.
Referee: Lee Probert.
Attendance: 7,068 (144 away).