Smalley 20, 23
by CHRIS PARSONS
A slick first-half display from promotion hopefuls Oxford United put Argyle to the sword at the Kassam Stadium.
Two goals in three minutes from the impressive Deane Smalley, backed up by an insatiable home crowd, were enough to set the home side up for what they thought might be a comfortable victory.
But after the break, the Pilgrims rallied and were rewarded when substitute Robbie Williams curled in a trademark free-kick to make for a nervy finish.
Argyle pushed, too, and perhaps could have nicked it but it was Oxford, who will put more goals past better sides than Argyle this season, who were the eventual victors.
The positives? Well, we are off the mark – Williams’ sublime finish is our first in npower League 2 this term. The attitude of the players will also have pleased Argyle manager Carl Fletcher who, disheartened with the mid-week performance against Dagenham, opted for not only a change of personnel, but also a change of formation for this, the third match of the campaign.
Knowing from bitter experience just how dangerous the U’s can be at home, the Pilgrims lined up in a 4-5-1 formation, with full-debutant Paris Cowan Hall brought in on the right and Warren Feeney to lead the attack on his own.
Luke Young, a natural central midfielder, was pushed inside to form a three man midfield with Paul Wotton and Conor Hourihane, leaving Andres Gurrieri as the attacking outlet on the left.
Nick Chadwick and Matt Lecointe, Argyle’s strike partnership in their opening three games, were forced to settle for places on the bench alongside full-back Durrell Berry, making his first appearance in an Argyle squad of any kind this season.
Oxford had scored four goals in their 100% league record so far and as early as the second minute showed why when Tom Craddock found the time and space on the left flank to fire a stinging effort just over Jake Cole’s goal.
It took until just after the ten minute mark for Argyle make their first impression on the match when Houirhane’s clever one-two with Gurrieri played the Irishman in. Having been shown the channel by the Oxford defence, he played smart ball across the box for Feeney to tap in, which he did, but sadly having come from offside position.
Disallowed it might have been, but the effort seemed to enlighten the Pilgrims, who for the next five minutes, set the tempo of the match.
Indeed, they could have even gone ahead had skipper Darren Purse’s bullet header from a Hourihane corner not rebounded off the back side of team mate Feeney inside the six-yard box.
But just as it looked like Argyle might look to assert some kind of dominance in the game, Oxford showed just why they are favourites for promotion by fashioning a goal out of nothing when Smalley reacted to a deflected shot in the middle of the area, turned and fired past Cole.
Three minutes later and they were two up, Smalley again the hero, finishing a counter-attacking move laid on for him by the impressive Alfie Potter.
Oxford were now cruising with the home support on their feet every time they crossed the half-way line. Full-back Damian Batt was the next to stretch the Pilgrims’ defence, cutting inside off the right flank to drill a curling shot wide of Cole’s right-hand upright.
As the game drifted past the half hour, the dark skies that had been gathering over Oxford since just before the kick-off finally opened and the three-sided Kassam Stadium was suddenly clattered with heavy and torrential rain.
It did not seem to halter the home side’s progress, though, as Smalley was denied his hat-trick by Cole with a superb save at the striker’s feet.
But, as the rain began to subside, so did the home side’s control, as the Pilgrims began to rally, with Feeney and Cowan-Hall combining at the back post to steer a header goalwards.
Sadly, the half-time interval came too soon for the recovering Argyle but after the break, Fletcher opted for two immediate changes, both at the back.
First on was Robbie Williams, making his first appearance of the season. He replaced Gurrieri to allow Bhasera to fill in on the left side of midfield and Williams to settle in his native left-back slot.
Durrell Berry also made his season’s bow, in a straight swap for Curtis Nelson on the right.
The start of the second-half half was very different from the first with the game played at a slower and less urgent tempo.
But the changes at the back had had a positive effect on the trailing Pilgrims and it was their renewed energy that allowed them to carve out the first chance of the second period when Warren Feeney steered Bhasera’s cross into the hands of Oxford ‘keeper Ryan Clarke.
After that, there was not much excitement to be had as even the buoyant home support began to relelent a little on their first-half offering.
On 71 minutes , Argyle went for a change of system as Darren Purse made way for Chadwick and more orthodox 4-4-2 with Paul Wotton at the back.
A long distance effort from oxford’s Sean Rigg briefly sparked the crowd back to life again but it was easily dealt with by Cole.
Then, roughly 15 minutes from time, a foul on Bhasera just outside the area provided the Pilgrims with the chance they needed to get back into the game.
With both Wotton and Williams stood over the kick, just to the left of centre, it was obvious that Clarke was worried. And he had every reason to be as the latter curled a wonderfully placed curling effort around the four man wall and into the bottom corner.
The near 800 strong contingent of the traveling Green Army were now in full voice as the boys in Green, now drenched in blazing sunlight, searched for an equaliser.
But Oxford were not content to just defend out their one goal lead and the Pilgrims again had Cole to thank for keeping out substitute Jon-Paul Pitman’s point blank effort with ten minutes remaining.
As the game came to a close, though, it was Argyle who looked the most dangerous as Bhasera’s low strike was deflected wide for a corner. Wotton’s consequential set-piece eventually found Williams on the edge of the box but his snap shot sailed over.
Then, just as the fourth official’s board, indicating three addition minutes was raised, substitute Berry glided into the box to steer a half-volley just wide.
Argyle continued to push both men and ball forward but could not find the breakthrough that we all so needed.
Oxford United (4-4-2): 1 Ryan Clarke; 2 Damien Batt, 4 Michael Raynes, 6 Jake Wright, 17 Tony Capaldi; 15 Alfie Potter, 7 Adam Chapman, 18 Jake Forster-Caskey (8 Simon Heslop h-t), 14 Sean Rigg; 29 Tom Craddock (11 Jon-Paul Pittman 67), 10 Deane Smalley (9 James Constable h-t). Substitutes (not used): 3 Sean McGinty, 21 Wayne Brown (gk), 23 Alex Evans, 28 Tyrone Marsh.
Argyle (4-5-1): 1 Jake Cole; 17 Curtis Nelson (2 Durrelll Berry h-t), 5 Darren Purse (capt) (9 Nick Chadwick 71), 4 Maxime Blanchard, 14 Onismor Bhasera; 7 Paris Cowan-Hall; 6 Conor Hourihane, 15 Paul Wotton, 8 Luke Young, 27 Andres Gurrieri (3 Robbie Williams h-t); 11 Warren Feeney. Substitutes (not used): 13 Ollie Chenoweth (gk), 19 Joe Lennox, 21 Matt Lecointe, 28 Johnny Gorman.
Booked: Bhasera 42, Berry 79, Williams 86.
Referee: Stephen Bratt
Attendance: 6,906 (770 away).