Cambridge 0 Argyle 1 - Report
Cambridge United 0
By Rick Cowdery
ANTONI Sarcevic – starting an Argyle match for the first time – scored his first goal for more than a year to keep the Pilgrims’ promotion bandwagon on track against game opponents.
The performance was, in many ways, an archetypal Argyle away display: assert your superiority; claim the goal that it merited; and then see the game out for however long it takes.
They had to ride their luck more than once during an entertaining match, with Cambridge centre-back Scott Wharton twice having headers cleared off the goal-line, but, as the old saw has it, the harder you work, the luckier you apparently get.
And, boy, did the Pilgrims work hard for these three points, especially after Sarcevic ended his 35-game goal-drought five minutes before half-time.
Argyle’s starting line-up included four of their five January transfer-window signings, with debutant forward Ryan Taylor, latterly of the country’s other old varsity soccer rivals Oxford United, taking the place of the fifth, Nathan Blissett, as principal striker.
On-loan Cardiff City winger Matty Kennedy also made his first appearance for the Greens – becoming, along with Taylor, the 1,053rd Pilgrim – alongside Carey and Sarcevic in a midfield brimming with attacking intent.
Those three changes from the side that lost 2-1 to Yeovil the previous Tuesday meant that none of Argyle’s three former Cambridge players was in their initial 11: Ryan Donaldson dropped down to the bench alongside Jordan Slew, while Jimmy Spencer travelled and warmed up with the squad for the first time since breaking and dislocating his ankle in November.
Cambridge tinkered with their formation and personnel for a third successive match as they sought to arrest a slump that had seen them fail to win any of their previous three home games. After a 3-1 home defeat by Mansfield as a 4-2-3-1 and a 2-0 loss at Luton with a 4-4-2 midfield diamond, manager Shaun Derry plumped for a 5-3-2.
Into that mix, he poured new signings, Blackburn Rovers’ on-loan centre-back Wharton and former Chesterfield midfielder Liam O’Neil, for their debuts. Forward Ben Williamson, who scored against the Pilgrims in a 2-2 draw on the final away day of last season, also started.
After a bright start in the low Cambridgeshire sunshine, Argyle suddenly found themselves under pressure. Williamson was allowed a free header from a right-wing cross only for Jakub Sokolik to redeem the defensive carelessness and block the attempt, but the subsequent corner led to a whole host of trouble for the white-shirted Greens.
Perhaps unsettled by the unanticipated switch of formation by their hosts, they were unable to clear their lines as shots and crosses came in from a variety of angles. Just as Yeovil had done to them four days earlier, the Pilgrims threw their bodies in the way of danger in determined protection of Luke McCormick’s goal.
Notable mentions in the melee go to Taylor, who deflected O’Neill’s shot on to the crossbar, and Oscar Threlkeld, who blocked a shot from Luke Berry and then got up off the floor to similarly thwart a second attempt from the ricochet.
Like a prize-fighter dumped on the seat of his pants early in a bout, Argyle shook the battering out of their heads, readjusted their gumshield, and got on to the front foot. Sarcevic’s curler from the edge of the penalty area was met by goalkeeper Will Norris’s flying save, and Graham Carey found space for three decent attempts, including a header after some wingman trickery by Kennedy.
Norris repeated his acrobatics to keep out another measured long-range attempt, this time from Kennedy, before David Fox got in on the act with a low, but relatively unthreatening, shot from outside the area after good work by Carey.
For all Cambridge’s earlier bluster, McCormick’s first save came with the game approaching half-time, when the mountainous Uche Ikpeazu was allowed to turn in and fire off a shot that required some super fingertips to see the ball to safety.
Argyle, though, generally seemed to have the measure of their hosts, as was evidenced by a subsequent passage of passing play that moved the ball, and their opponents, around at will before a shot from Carey was blocked by the long leg of Leon Legge.
A goal seemed imminent, though, and so it proved. Carey, apparently reveling from having similarly minded and similarly skilled players around him, received the ball on the right and popped the perfect ball on to the head of Sarcevic, unmarked, centre of goal, on the six-yard line. It would have been rude not to accept the opportunity.
The Pilgrims had fared pretty well against their recent Achilles heel – set-pieces, from which they had conceded all previous seven goals in this calendar year – but Cambridge found some joy from a corner in time added on to the first half. Some, but not complete, with Carey’s influence on the game extending to shoveling Wharton’s powerful header off the line with his thigh after Piero Mongoia had provided the delivery.
Similar happened at the beginning of the second half from another Mingoia corner, with Mark Roberts and Luke Berry this time being denied in a furious goalmouth scramble that followed and which ended with half a dozen players prostrate in the six-yard box.
Argyle replaced Kennedy with Donaldson, who came close to scoring immediately after coming on when another fluid phrase of play ended with Carey hanging up a ball to the far post, where fellow substitute Harrison Dunk just got a head to it.
As the Pilgrims settled in for the long haul, the game’s third substitute, Paul Lewis, had his say in affairs, cleanly heading Dunk’s cross towards goal. However, McCormick read the situation impeccably and parried the ball away.
Slew came on, to a chorus of boos (and Slews), for Taylor, and straight away called Norris into action after picking up Carey’s perceptive pass, driving into the box and shooting from a tight angle.
The momentum stayed with the hosts and Wharton was again denied from a corner when his second goalbound header of the game that had McCormick beaten was this time met by David Fox on the near post.
That summed up the Pilgrims’ all-hands-to-the-pump mentality, which saw Songo’o drop back into a central three.
Cambridge threw everything including the kitchen sink at their grimly determined visitors, who only occasionally broke from under the cosh, most notably when Slew broke clear but was forced wide and shot into the side-netting.
In the end, it did not matter and Argyle closed the gap on leaders Doncaster with their tenth away win of the season.
Cambridge United (5-3-2): 1 Will Norris; 7 Piero Mingoia, 6 Leon Legge (capt), 5 Mark Roberts, 12 Scott Wharton, 19 Jake Carroll (11 Harrison Dunk 57); 16 Liam O’Neill, 8 Luke Berry, 4 James Dunne (22 Paul Lewis 68); 10 Ben Williamson (15 Gerry McDonagh 78), 26 Uche Ikpeazu. Substitutes (not used): 13 David Gregory (gk), 18 George Maris, 20 Max Clark, 24 Conor Newton.
Bookings: Legge 90.
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 23 Luke McCormick (capt); 18 Oscar Threlkeld, 31 Jakub Sokolik, 15 Sonny Bradley, 3 Gary Sawyer; 4 Yann Songo'o, 24 David Fox; 10 Graham Carey, 7 Antoni Sarcevic, 16 Matty Kennedy (11 Ryan Donaldson 57); 19 Ryan Taylor (8 Jordan Slew 74). Substitutes (not used): 5 Nauris Bulvitis, 13 Nathan Blissett, 14 Jake Jervis, 21 Vincent Dorel (gk), 27 Craig Tanner.
Bookings: Sawyer 81, McCormick 90.
Referee: John Brooks.
Attendance: 5,084 (837 away)