Pilgrims put together run of results to raise spirits
There was more compelling evidence on Saturday that the green shoots of recovery at Plymouth Argyle are starting to take hold.
The Pilgrims played their best football of the season as they beat Rochdale 3-1 at Home Park, with on-loan striker Guy Madjo twice scoring from the penalty spot.
A fortnight earlier, Argyle had produced a dismal performance when they lost 2-1 to visiting AFC Wimbledon. That led to fears the Pilgrims could be in for yet another season of struggle but, two weeks later, it looks more likely to have been a blip than the start of a downward spiral.
Since then, Argyle have won three consecutive matches, starting with a 2-1 success against Aldershot Town in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy at Home Park. They followed that with a 4-1 npower League Two triumph at Barnet before beating Rochdale.
For the first time since August 2010, the Pilgrims have a positive goal difference. They had also not had back-to-back league wins since Easter 2011, shortly before their relegation from League One was sealed.
Argyle have taken their goal tally to 19 in 13 League games this season. Contrast that with last term when it took them until the 20th match, a 1-1 draw at Bradford City on December 10, to reach that total.
The Pilgrims are on 17 points after their defeat of Rochdale. They did not accumulate that many points in 2011-12 until they won 3-2 away to Bristol Rovers on Boxing Day. That is the scale of their improvement, admittedly compared to a disastrous start to last term.
Their players have tried to implement the more pleasing-to-the-eye style of passing football wanted by manager Carl Fletcher, and they are starting to earn their rewards.
Rochdale arrived at Home Park with four successive away League wins behind them, including a victory at table-topping Gillingham. But they were outplayed from the kick-off, with the Pilgrims racing into a 2-0 lead.
Plymouth's Argentinian playmaker Andres Gurrieri was excellent, as he played behind Madjo in a 4-4-1-1 formation. He was involved in the build-up to Argyle's first goal, which came in the fourth minute. He spotted on-loan left-back Scott Griffiths breaking forward, and picked him out with a good pass.
Griffiths drove the ball low into the penalty area, and off-balance Rochdale centre-back Ryan Edwards was penalised for handball by referee Gary Sutton. With Argyle striker Rhys Griffiths ruled out by a groin injury, the spot-kick duties were assumed by Madjo – and he confidently dispatched the ball into the net.
Argyle took a 2-0 lead against Barnet inside 12 minutes at Underhill. They needed less than seven minutes to emulate that feat on Saturday as Gurrieri headed home from close range.
The move that led to the goal was a fluent one, with several players involved along the way. It ended with Alex MacDonald clipping the ball into the penalty area. Gurrieri deftly guided it into the bottom right corner of the net.
Madjo had a good chance to put the hosts 3-0 up in the 17th minute when he got on the end of an inviting cross from Paris Cowan-Hall. However, Madjo's powerful header was pushed away for a corner by goalkeeper Josh Lillis.
MacDonald, Gurrieri and right-back Durrell Berry all went close for Argyle before half-time, but there was a warning shortly before the break that Rochdale were not out of the contest.
Adebola soared above the Pilgrims' defence to meet a free-kick from Andrew Tutte and his header brushed off the outside of the left post.
Rochdale forced Argyle to defend for long spells in the second half, with Gurrieri seeing nowhere near as much of the ball as before. The visitors were awarded a penalty in the 54th minute after centre-back Maxime Blanchard's challenge on Jason Kennedy was ruled illegal by Sutton.
It seemed harsh and justice was perhaps served as Argyle goalkeeper Cole kept out the spot-kick from Rochdale's top scorer, Bobby Grant.
Time was starting to run out for the away side when Dele Adebola headed home in the 76th minute, moments after flattening Argyle captain Darren Purse with a stray arm. The referee did not spot the incident, however, and allowed play to continue.
That was soon followed by a disputed free-kick for Rochdale, from which Adebola scored. The tension built as full-time approached, and Curtis Nelson was sent on as an 89th-minute substitute for Gurrieri as Fletcher tried to tighten up the defence.
A home victory was secured, though, when substitute Joe Lennox scampered into the penalty area and Sutton ruled that he had been pushed over by Ryan Edwards. Madjo took the spot-kick and crashed the ball high into the net, to the right of Lillis, to finish off Rochdale once and for all.
The Pilgrims now face consecutive away games against Cheltenham Town and Rotherham United – two teams likely to be challenging for promotion – this week.