Argyle 1 Oxford 1 (1-3 on pens)Argyle 1
Oxford United 1
Oxford United won 3-1 on penalties
Griffiths (Argyle) scored 1-0
Rigg (Oxford) scored 1-1
Gurrierri missed 1-1
Chapman scored 1-2
Lowry saved 1-2
Davis scored 1-3
Blanchard saved 1-3
by RICK COWDERY
FOR the second time this season, Argyle exited a cup competition without having lost the game going out, as they had done at Burnley, after a penalty shoot-out.
Their record of 0 for 2 from spot-kicks this season was a perfect reflection of the club’s miserable record in sudden-death denouements: in history, they are 1 for 7, their solitary success coming 14 years ago in an FA Cup tie at Kidderminster.
In the game proper, the Pilgrims took the lead midway through the first half when Alex MacDonald, playing the final game of his loan spell from Burnley, fired home a 30-yard free-kick.
Argyle were good value for their lead, but surrendered the advantage just after the hour when Oxford substitute James Constable headed home.
They ended the 90 minutes level on goals, but down by one on bodies after Durrell Berry was dismissed late on when he picked up the second of two yellow cards.
It might have been ten days since the Pilgrims had previously played but the starting 11 was precisely the same as that which had suffered an undeserved 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Chesterfield in their preceding outing.
Manager Carl Fletcher endorsed the dominant, but ultimately futile, performance by keeping together the team for what, with MacDonald’s loan expiring on Friday, would be the second and last time.
Just behind MacDonald, Mark Molesley retained his place in the centre of midfield alongside captain Conor Hourihane, with Paris Cowan-Hall and Andres Gurrieri on the flanks supporting lone striker Nick Chadwick.
Without the suspended Darren Purse, and with Robbie Williams still making has way back from a stomach injury, the back four more or less picked itself, and Rene Gilmartin was preferred to Jake Cole in goal.
Youngsters Tyler Harvey and Jamie Richards were named as substitutes – of which only five are allowed under the terms of the competition – and there were some notable absentees from the squad, including Warren Feeney, Guy Madjo and Joe Lennox.
Oxford came to Home Park on the back of a similarly gruelling trip three days earlier, to Accrington with who they drew 3-3 in an FA Cup second-round match.
Former Pilgrim Tony Capaldi was one of four players from that tie not to make the United 16 against his old club, along with Peter Leven, Jon-Paul Pittman and Andrew Whing, while Constable was relegated to the bench.
In came Damian Batt, Jake Forster-Caskey, Adam Chapman, Liam Davis and Tyrone Marsh.
Argyle most potent threat early on was Molesley, whose left-footed shot required Us goalkeeper Ryan Clarke to dive at something approaching full stretch to keep the ball out.
The on-loan Bournemouth player then went on a 30-yard run, evading the attentions of several United players before he was tagged by skipper Jake Wright a yard outside the penalty area.
MacDonald’s subsequent free-kick was initially on target and powerful enough, but clipped the outside of the defensive wall just enough to be deflected for a corner.
The Pilgrims came with a lick of paint of taking the lead when Berry advanced from right-back to right at the heart of the Oxford penalty area and jinked his way into position to let off a left-foot shot that hit the inside of the post and dribbled along the goal-line before being cleared.
Green Army hearts were in mouths when Gilmartin slipped in the act of racing Sean Rigg for Davis’s through-ball, giving a distinct advantage to the Oxford forward. However, the Irishman recovered to deprive Rigg, outside his area, with a tackle of which any outfielder would be proud.
Reprieved, MacDonald immediately put the Pilgrims ahead. His right-footed free-kick from wide on the Argyle left was whipped in with such venom that Clarke could only grasp at fresh air as the 30-yard effort sailed over the head of the back-pedalling goalkeeper.
Going behind naturally brought the visitors out of their shells and Argyle needed to be alert to that threat, even though they continued to make their own, better, chances, with Clarke bravely saving at the feet of Cowan-Hall.
By the time half-time arrived – and most other games were just kicking off – Gilmartin still had not been called into meaningful action.
The second period began with Molesley firing high and wide into the Devonport end, his long-range attempt being replicated by Cowan-Hall.
Talking of repeats, MacDonald nearly trumped his first-half ace when his free-kick from an identical position to his earlier goalscoring one nearly made its way through to goal, this time on a lower trajectory.
Oxford beefed up their attack by bringing on Constable and, within eight minutes, the striker had headed the Us level.
Gilmartin and his defenders failed to deal with a cross to their far post, with Gilmartin punching indecisively under pressure from Rigg, leaving Constable to send the ball looping back over the goalkeeper and Berry inside the post.
Argyle responded positively to the setback, after a couple of nervy moments, sent on Rhys Griffiths, and Oxford’s defence was stretched in a sustained attack in which at least two goalbound shots were blocked with bodies-on-the-line defending.
Berry then made forward ground and perfectly picked out MacDonald in the centre of the penalty area, but the striker could not direct his header on target.
Oxford fancied the win, too, and Rigg nearly gave them the go-head goal when he was played in on the left before firing off a shot that whistled across the face of Gilmartin’s goal.
The tiring Molesley had not been afraid to try his luck at shooting from pretty well anywhere and a low grubber that shaved Clarke’s post demonstrated that his radar had definitely become more accurate.
The impressive Berry was then dismissed six minutes from time for a second yellow card, a decision which led to MacDonald completing his loan at right-back and made a penalty shoot-out more or less inevitable.
Argyle (4-5-1): 20 Rene Gilmartin; 2 Durrell Berry, 17 Curtis Nelson, 4 Maxime Blanchard, 14 Onismor Bhasera; 7 Paris Cowan-Hall (29 Tyler Harvey 90), 30 Mark Molesley (16 Jamie Lowry 83), 32 Alex MacDonald, 6 Conor Hourihane (capt), 27 Andres Gurrieri; 9 Nick Chadwick (10 Rhys Griffiths 68). Substitutes (not used): 1 Jake Cole (gk), 23 Jamie Richards.
Sent off: Berry 84.
Booked: Berry 21, Griffiths 71, Hourihane 82.
Oxford United (4-3-3): 1 Ryan Clarke; 2 Damian Batt, 4 Michael Raynes, 6 Jake Wright, 26 Liam David; 18 Jake Forster-Caskey, 19 Lee Cox (9 James Constable 54), 7 Adam Chapman; 14 Sean Rigg, 28 Tyrone Marsh (8 Simon Heslop 54), 15 Alfie Potter. Substitutes (not used): 21 Wayne Brown (gk), 22 Harry Worley, 23 Luke O’Brien.
Booked: Forster-Caskey 75 .
Referee: Roger East.
Attendance: 2,383 (118 away).