Oxford United 2
Hentry 49, Brannagan 53
THE Pilgrims paid the price for not cashing in on a dominant first half against Sky Bet League One peers Oxford United before suffering five minutes of second-half madness to go out of the Emirates FA Cup.
They were in total control of their second-round tie up until the moment that James Henry opened the scoring in the 49th minute. Almost immediately, Cameron Brannagan made the score 2-0 and, although normal service was quickly resumed, the Pilgrims could not claw back the game.
Antoni Sarcevic did halve the deficit to set up a real cup-tie final quarter but Ruben Lameiras’s injury-time shot that hit the post just about summed up Argyle’s nearly-but-not-quite afternoon.
Defender Joe Riley and midfielder Graham Carey had returned to the Argyle starting line-up for the second-round second meeting with Oxford this season.
Both had made substitute appearances in the previous Tuesday’s Sky Bet League One 2-0 defeat at Shrewsbury, and each replaced the man that they had come on for at Montgomery Waters Meadow – Tafari Moore and Lameiras dropping to the substitutes’ bench.
Alongside them was former Oxford forward Ryan Taylor and Gregg Wylde, who came into the squad instead of injured on-loan Cardiff City midfielder Stuart O’Keefe.
The Oxford 11 included former Pilgrims Curtis Nelson and Jamie Mackie, who each scored in October's Sky Bet League One meeting between the two sides at the Kassam Stadium, which Oxford won 2-0.
The visitors were unchanged from the side that had beaten Rochdale 4-2 four days previously, the latest result in a run of ten games since they had played the Pilgrims which had seen five wins and only one defeat – at bottom side Bradford City.
Argyle showed no signs of a hangover from their midweek disappointment in Shropshire. They were straight on the front foot and barely moved backwards for the entire first half.
Joel Grant, subbed at half-time at Shrewsbury, was the man who, more than most, drove them on. Sometimes his control and vision is way above that of your average League One player, and this was one of those times.
Those two qualities came together in one sublime moment when he seized on Carey’s exquisite cross-field pass to bear down on goal. It was a shame his fierce shot riffled the netting from the wrong side.
The Jamaican international went closer still from one of seven corners that Argyle won in the opening 45 minutes. His cute little back-heel from the centre of the six-yard box wrong-footed everyone except for Oxford goalkeeper Eastwood, who did not even get credit for his save when the referee awarded a goal-kick.
Freddie Ladapo had been relatively quiet by comparison but, as he showed the previous week, that does not mean he is going to stay quiet and, like Grant, he fired into the side-netting after collecting Carey’s pass and shooting on the spin.
If Freddie had been quiet, then Oxford had been positively soporific, but they, too, showed that it would be foolish to dismiss that when they broke – from another Argyle corner. In a moment, they went from their own penalty area to Gavin Whyte feeding Marcus Browne for an effort which found neither the target nor the incoming Jamie Mackie.
Argyle, though, patrolled their patch with efficiency and some menace, typified by a yellow card for Jamie Ness which completed a seasonal full set of bookings in record time – Sky Bet League One, Carabo Cup, Checkatrade Trophy and, now, Emirates FA Cup.
From a position of some strength and stability, it seemed inconceivable that the Pilgrims would find themselves on the verge of going out of the competition within eight minutes of the start of the second half, but that is what transpired.
First, Henry drifted in off the right flank, played a one-two with Mackie, and slotted the ball home at Matt Macey’s near post from not far off the bye-line.
Then, Brannagan fired off a shot from distance – Mackie again the supply-line – which was always out of Macey’s reach. Referee Peter Wright had missed, or chose to ignore, a clear handball in the build-up.
In the intervening five minutes, the Pilgrims had not exactly been wandering around in a daze and were twice unlucky not to have equalised. David Fox had a shot headed off the line by Rob Dickie before Yann Songo’s effort was well saved by Eastwood, with the Argyle defender’s follow-up diving header going wide.
They were not dilatory after the United one-two, either, as the earlier pattern of the game resumed and it was no surprise that they scored the next goal, Carey superbly setting up Sarcevic to shoot across Eastwood.
No surprise, either, that Home Park exploded into life, fuelled by a heady mix of hope and exhortation. Real cup-tie stuff.
Argyle threw on Oxford old boy Taylor for the final 15 minutes, though not in a two up front that failed to work at Shrewsbury, and went for it with Sarcveic, Ladapo and Joel Grant supporting the substitute.
Fox saw another shot blocked as the visitors’ defence went into what-we-have-we-hold mode, with Nelson turning in the type of performance that Home Park used to laud.
Having already taken off a defensive midfielder, Argyle then shed a defender – Ashley Smith-Brown – to bring on Lameiras.
After an injury-time deflected shot, the Portuguese midfielder came within the width of the woodwork of keeping the Pilgrims on the Road to Wembley, when his left-foot shot beat Eastwood but clattered off the post.
Argyle (4-3-3): 1 Matt Macey; 2 Joe Riley, 4 Yann Songo'o, 14 Niall Canavan, 23 Ashley Smith-Brown (11 Ruben Lameiras 86); 8 David Fox (capt), 7 Antoni Sarcevic, 6 Jamie Ness (9 Ryan Taylor 75); 10 Graham Carey, 19 Freddie Ladapo, 16 Joel Grant. Substitutes (not used): 20 Gregg Wylde, 21 Kyle Letheren (gk), 22 Tafari Moore, 24 Peter Grant, 35 Luke Jephcott.
Booked: Riley 35, Ness 41, Smith-Brown 77.
Oxford United (4-3-3): 1 Simon Eastwood; 6 Jamie Hanson, 5 Curtis Nelson, 4 Rob Dickie, 14 Josh Ruffels; 8 Cameron Brannagan, 15 John Mousinho (capt), 17 James Henry; 10 Marcus Browne, 19 Jamie Mackie, 16 Gavin Whyte 923 Sam Long 90). Substitutes (not used): 2 Cameron Norman, 3 Luke Garbutt, 9 Sam Smith, 22 Charlie Raglan, 27 Jack Stevens (gk), 42 Owen James.
Booked: Brannagan 53.
Referee: Peter Wright.
Attendance: 5,984 (381 away).