Cambridge United 1
ARGYLE fell to narrow defeat at the Abbey Stadium in a game where they were paid the penalty for an uncharacteristically slow opening 45 minutes.
The Greens dominated territory and possession in the second-half, but could not force a clear enough opening to recover from Kyle Knoyle’s winner on 18 minutes.
Manager Ryan Lowe broke a streak of four consecutive games with the same starting eleven, making two changes. The first, enforced through Callum McFadzean’s knee injury, saw Conor Grant reprise a left-back role that he briefly enjoyed last season in Sky Bet League One, while the second saw Dom Telford, who celebrated his 23rd birthday in midweek, replace Joel Grant up front.
Meanwhile, the hosts made a number of changes, including to their shape, for the encounter with the Greens. Most notable of these, from a Pilgrim perspective, was the late inclusion of former loanee Elliott Ward, now a veteran at 34, deputising for Dan Jones, who pulled up in the warm-up.
The Pilgrims opened their most recent league game against Bradford City in red-hot fashion, taking the lead inside the opening five minutes. At the Abbey Stadium, though, they were somewhat fortunate not to have been caught short inside 60 seconds, as a long ball downfield from the hosts sent Harvey Knibbs in behind.
Knibbs, perhaps surprised to have been afforded a clear route to goal before most supporters had taken their seats, hesitated with his effort - allowing Alex Palmer to gratefully block the effort with his legs.
Much of the early exchanges seemed to be focused down the Pilgrims’ left side. The U’s did their best to crank open the gap between fledgling wing-back Grant and skipper Gary Sawyer. Meanwhile, Argyle’s offensive impetus was provided by Danny Mayor, without the final ball to show for it.
It was little surprise, then, that the hosts’ opener came from that side. Mayor, attempting to launch a counter-attack from deep inside his own territory, was dispossessed by the left touchline. Exposed and caught in transition, the Greens’ defensive unit were unable to tighten their lines quick enough to deny full-back Knoyle from collecting Reggie Lambe’s pass before striking into the far corner.
The goal, as it often does at this level, provided the hosts with some much-needed confidence, and the Greens did well in the following five minutes not to surrender another goal under pressure from the hosts.
First, Paul Lewis forced Palmer into a good save from range, before a crucial Scott Wootton intervention denied Luke Hannant from ghosting in on goal. The final half-chance in the flurry of post-goal activity for Cambridge saw Palmer take a fraction too long in disposing of Niall Canavan’s back-pass, with his kick deflecting off the onrushing Knibbs and away to blessed safety.
As the game approached half-time, a slight change of shape, brought about by the barking instruction of Steven Schumacher on the touchline, seemed to bring a little more territorial joy for the Greens, but they still remained frustratingly shot shy as referee Michael Salisbury drew the half to a close.
As disappointing as the first-half had been from the Pilgrims’ perspective, and it had been disappointing, they were still very much in the game – and that was something to be thankful for.
Having spent most of the first-half on the ropes, the Pilgrims came out in the second-half swinging. First, Wootton’s tenacity to win a 50/50 allowed Telford to send Mayor away to try his luck. Then, Sarcevic showed similar determined qualities to race behind enemy lines to win a free-kick that was eventually headed wide by Canavan.
Sensing that the Pilgrims had perhaps regained control in the middle third, Lowe moved to introduce more attacking personnel in the form of Joel Grant on 55 minutes. His namesake, Conor, made way, which meant a reshuffle that saw Moore drop back to the wing, with Joel heading to the forward line alongside Telford. Minutes later, with Edwards laying a foul while already on a booking, George Cooper was introduced on the opposite flank.
Effectively playing with two wingers, the Greens continued to turn the screw out wide, but the killer pass still evaded them. A passage of wonderful link-up play between Wootton, Telford and Sarcevic released Moore on the left flank, where he found Mayor on the overlap, only for the midfielder’s cut-back to roll agonisingly along the area before a Cambridge boot hacked it clear.
Moore, looking extremely comfortable at wing-back, burst forward from deep again shortly after, deciding to go it alone this time. He cut inside goalscorer Knoyle on the edge of the area before striking low and hard, forcing Mitov into action at his near post.
As the game entered five minutes of stoppage time, Sarcevic whipped a dangerous fizzing cross into the box, which somehow evaded Mitov, Joel Grant, and the far post by centimetres.
With the final play of the game, Cooper was felled on the edge of the United area. He picked himself up, dusted himself off, and curled the resultant set-piece into the side netting.
Cambridge United (4-4-2): 1 Dimitar Mitov (gk); 2 Kyle Knoyle, 16 Harry Darling, 5 Greg Taylor (capt), 34 Elliott Ward; 22 Paul Lewis, 7 Luke Hannant, 8 Liam O’Neil (21 Samir Carruthers 60), 19 Reggie Lambe (30 Jack Roles 79); 20 Sam Smith, 26 Harvey Knibbs (9 Andrew Dallas 79). Substitutes (not used): 24 Jordan Norville-Williams, 25 Callum Burton (gk), 33 Lewis Simper.
Booked: Taylor 50, Lewis 57, Carruthers 66
Argyle (3-5-2): 24 Alex Palmer (gk); 5 Scott Wootton, 6 Niall Canavan, 3 Gary Sawyer (capt); 8 Joe Edwards (32 George Cooper 65), 7 Antoni Sarcevic, 25 Josh Grant, 10 Danny Mayor, 15 Conor Grant (16 Joel Grant 55); 11 Dom Telford (18 Billy Clarke 73), 17 Byron Moore. Substitutes (not used): 1 Mike Cooper (gk), 2 Joe Riley, 9 Ryan Taylor, 39 Zak Rudden.
Booked: Canavan 33, Edwards 43
Referee: Michael Salisbury
Attendance: 4,492 (843 away)