Bristol Rovers 1
Sarcevic pen 84
ARGYLE put the Green Army through the gamut of emotions at the Mem, going behind in their Emirates FA Cup second-round clash late on before rallying to level with six minutes to play through an Antoni Sarcevic penalty.
Sarcevic then had a chance to win the tie with a second penalty, deep into injury time. This time, his shot lacked the conviction of the first and Bristol Rovers goalkeeper Anssi Jaakkola saved the kick, sending the contest to a Home Park replay, most likely on Tuesday, December 10.
A second chance was the least that Argyle deserved after having bossed proceedings for most of the game to such an extent that it was a minor shock when Rovers went ahead in the 74th minute to Liam Sercombe’s strike.
Argyle manager Ryan Lowe had selected the same starting 11 for the fourth successive match, since, in fact, he had first handed the central defensive midfield position to Josh Grant in the first round of the Cup at Bolton Wanderers.
In the interval between the two ties, with Grant nailing the pivotal role, the Pilgrims had won Sky Bet League Two matches away to then leaders Forest Green Rovers and at home against similarly promotion-focused Bradford City.
The Pilgrims included two former Rovers' players in their starting 11 – captain Gary Sawyer and forward Byron Moore – while a third ex-Gashead, Dom Telford, was one of four forwards on a hugely attacking Argyle substitutes' bench, the composition of which suggested that Ryan Lowe did not intend to leave the Mem wondering.
Argyle’s opening sorties suggested similar. Also that the extra day afforded them because of the Sabbath kick-off had been at least partially spent honing a few set-piece moves on Harper’s Park.
From one such interplay, Abu Ogogo did well to snuff out a shot by the increasingly influential Sarcevic; from another, Rollin Menayese showed great foresight and no little bravery to fling himself into the path of a shot from Sawyer after the skipper had done well to finesse some space in the Rovers penalty area.
Argyle were so on top in the opening exchange that, when Jonson Clarke-Harris fired off a speculative long-range shot that was always going wide, the reaction of the home crowd, starved of anything to shout about, was disproportionally enthusiastic.
Argyle looked the more threatening, though, and Moore’s through-ball to Danny Mayor, still groggy from a head injury sustained in a late challenge that referee Will Finnie appeared to miss, was replete with possibilities until Jaakkola stepped out.
Suddenly, the cup-o-meter registered something of a home surge. Alex Palmer was called upon for the first time when Sercombe’s free-kick from the left was swung in dangerously under the Argyle crossbar, and when Tony Craig found a smidgen of space for a hurried shot.
The Pilgrims, though, looked more assured and inventive than their hosts, and were able to come at Rovers with sustained menace right up until the half-time whistle, just before which the impressive Alfie Kilgour had blunted yet another attack by blocking off Joe Edwards’ shot. Only the end-product was lacking.
Rovers needed to change something, and they attempted to do so by bringing on forward Tyler Smith for midfielder Ed Upson, who had anyway trod a delicate line after being booked in the opening ten minutes.
With no doubt some choice words from Graham Coughlan still ringing in their ears, they forced a corner from which Palmer saved Kilgour’s header; Argyle responded with a flag-kick of their own that needed just a little more than Niall Canavan’s feather header to Sarcevic’s delivery.
Argyle’s momentum was interrupted when McFadzean limped off to be replaced by Conor Grant, whose experience of playing left wing-back will not be a huge one. A tactical change followed, with Telford replacing Joel Grant.
The sense that both sides wanted to settle matters at the first attempt was enhanced by the growing end-to-end nature of the contest and increased action in the respective penalty areas: Menayese came to Rovers rescue again when Moore spun and shot, while Scott Wootton slammed the door in Tyler’s face.
Mayor was denied after a super solo run that took him past three defenders and to the edge of the six-yard box, where, in attempting to shoot, he was eased off the ball. The Green Army behind the goal that he was attacking yelled for a penalty, but Finnie waved away the very notion.
The feeling was that something had to give but it was surprising that when it did, Sercombe, who had been a largely peripheral figure, was the one to make the breakthrough.
In truth, he had it easy after a lovely pass from Clarke-Harris released Luke Leahy down the left with space enough to cut the ball back for a composed low shot from 15 yards that was stroked precisely wide of Palmer’s dive.
Argyle immediately sent on George Cooper for Josh Grant and flooded forward in an attempt to keep their Cup hopes alive.
They reaped reward when Mayor reprised his earlier solo effort and was this time unquestionably halted illegally by Abu Ogogu. Sarcevic, the Pilgrims’ nominated penalty-taker, stepped up and powered a low shot wide to the right of Jaakkola’s dive.
Cue FA good old-fashioned Cup mayhem, and thrusts into the heart of the opposition were met with bodies-on-the-line defending as sinews were stretched, and passion everywhere, including on the Rovers’ bench, with Coughlan receiving a yellow card.
Palmer beat away Clarke-Harris’s free-kick in time added and surpassed that with the slightest touch to turn Leahy’s header from Mark Little’s lofted cross on to the post as Rovers put Argyle under sustained pressure for the first time in the contest.
Argyle, though, stood firm and broke away through Telford and Moore, who was brought down from behind by Menayese, who was sent off. Sarcevic changed his angle of attack and went straight down the middle. Jaakkola made an easy save.
7pm Monday. BBC Two. Ball number 64.
Still in it.
Bristol Rovers (3-5-2): 32 Anssi Jaakkola; 24 Rollin Menayese, 5 Tony Craig, 15 Alfie Kilgour; 2 Mark Little, 6 Ed Upson (17 Tyler Smith half-time), 8 Ollie Clarke, 4 Abu Ogogo, 11 Luke Leahy; 7 Liam Sercombe, 9 Jonson Clarke-Harris. Substitutes (not used): 1 Jordi van Stappersheof, 10 Tom Nichols, 18 Michael Kelly, 23 Kyle Bennett, 29 Victor Adeboyejo, 33 Alex Rodman.
Sent off: Menayese.
Booked: Upson 8, Clarke 81, Kilgour 84.
Argyle (3-5-2): 24 Alex Palmer (gk); 5 Scott Wootton, 6 Niall Canavan, 3 Gary Sawyer (capt); 8 Joe Edwards, 7 Antoni Sarcevic, 25 Josh Grant (32 George Cooper 77), 10 Danny Mayor, 21 Callum McFadzean (15 Conor Grant 53); 16 Joel Grant (11 Dom Telford 56), 17 Byron Moore. Substitutes (not used): 1 Michael Cooper (gk), 9 Ryan Taylor, 18 Billy Clarke, 39 Zak Rudden.
Booked: Josh Grant 65, Telford 90.
Referee: Will Finnie.
Attendance: 6,215 (1,802 away).