Grecians into semi-final of St Luke's Bowl
Exeter City advanced to the semi-final of the St Luke’s Bowl with a well-merited Devon Derby win against rivals and defending champions Plymouth Argyle at Home Park.
The game needed penalties to decide matters, after a well-worked opener by Matt Jay late in the game was pegged back deep into stoppage time as Caolan Lavery headed in from close range to match things up at 1-1.
But it was comprehensive for City from 12 yards as Argyle missed three spot kicks, while City scored all three of theirs – the final one coming from Tom Nichols, who had his redemption after having squandered a penalty during the 90 minutes.
The two rivals named strong sides for the quarter-final tie, with almost all of the starting 22 having had first-team experience for their respective clubs. Argyle indeed had veteran duo Paul Wotton and Guy Branston marshalling their defence.
And it was the home side that looked dangerous in the opening exchanges, which ended with a Hamza Bencherif belter that cleared the crossbar comfortably.
But as soon as City settled, they began to toy with the Pilgrims’ defence with some quick and dynamic movement with a front-four diamond shape. A lovely passing interchange down the left involving Jacob Jagger Cane, Jimmy Keohane and Jake Gosling allowed a low cross to be flashed across the six-yard box. Centre-half Jordan Tillson, of all people, was the man attacking the ball but his effort was blocked out.
Moments later it was Keohane that had a near-identical chance as Jay escaped the offside trap to cut back, but Branston smothered out the City midfielder as he shaped to strike.
City were snappy to anything loose and Nichols, who had been defending well from the front, found space wide on the left and lashed a curling shot towards the far post, though stopper Jake Cole repositioned himself to save well.
Argyle’s main threat was coming down the right flank through Isaac Vassell, though when he delivered a fine centre across the six-yard box, there were no green shirts arriving to attack the ball.
Gosling, who had been in the wars, was unlucky not to open the scoring with a fine free-kick from all of 30 yards. He had earned the chance himself by drawing a heavy tackle from Bencherif, and his curling effort took some paint off the outside of the post on its way behind.
The Grecians squandered a great opportunity to open the scoring in first-half stoppage-time – Matt Jay’s well-hit shot wasn’t gathered by Cole, and when Keohane cut the rebound back from the byline, it took the slightest of nicks off an Argyle man to take it away from the run of Nichols, who was steaming into the six-yard box with the goal at his mercy.
Up the other end, a mistimed tackle by Jordan Moore-Taylor gave Andre Blackman a chance to strike a left-footed free-kick from the edge of the area. The full-back got the ball up and over the wall, but couldn’t get it to dip back down and under the bar.
Half-time: Plymouth Argyle 0 Exeter City 0
The pace dropped away somewhat in the second period, though Nichols was twice almost laid in by neat balls by Gosling, only to be denied by and outstretched leg on each occasion.
Then Gosling was released down the left wing by a smooth pass by Jagger Cane, but the shot at the end of it was ballooned into the stand.
Jamie Reid was introduced for Keohane after the hour, as City kept the same forward shape but altered the personnel. Gosling went to the right with Reid on the left as inverted wingers, while Jay – who had been operating on the right flank – moved infield to a number 10 position behind Nichols. Though the front four were interchanging positions regularly.
And suddenly with 20 minutes to go, the game sprung into life with incredible saves at either end. First Cole denied Nichols a close-range header by clawing off the line, before Pym equalled his counterpart’s effort less than a minute later to deny Bencherif from a tight angle.
Reid came the width of the post from scoring with a drilled effort from wide on the right, as Cole breathed a sigh of relief when it flashed across past the far post.
Argyle had the biggest let off of the night when Blackman felled Aaron Dawson, overlapping from right-back, inside the box. An uncharacteristic effort from Nichols saw him spurn his penalty wide of the post.
But just minutes later City did take the lead, as a fine dissecting ball by Reid found Jay inside the area who coolly lifted the ball over the advancing goalkeeper.
Reid almost claimed another assist moments later as he tried to slip in Nichols when a shot might have been the better option, and slightly overhit it.
So it was a cruel blow for City to concede meekly in stoppage time. A ball into the box was headed up into the air by Pat Baldwin, but no-one took control of the second ball to allow Lavery to guide a header just inside the post.
But Argyle were wasteful from the spot, as Romuald Boco and Lavery both hit their efforts high into the stands. Gosling and Reid both nestled their efforts past Cole.
Wotton tried to drill his effort down the middle, but Pym stayed big and denied the captain a goal. So it was up to Nichols to earn his settlement for a miss from the spot in normal time – and he made no mistake as he rounded off a fine City win with a decisive penalty.
Full-time: Plymouth Argyle 1 Exeter City 1 (Exeter win 3-0 on penalties)
Plymouth Argyle: Cole, Purrington, Blackman (Stark 88), Richards, Branston, Asumada-Sakyi (Wheatley 66), Vassell (Hutchinson 90), Boco, Lavery, Bencherif, Wotton.
Subs (not used): Hannah, Bentley.
Goal: Lavery (90).
Exeter City: Pym; Dawson, Baldwin, Tillson, Moore-Taylor; Jagger Cane, Doherty, Keohane (Reid 62), Gosling; Jay, Nichols.
Subs (not used): Hamon, Rigg, Wannell, Chamberlain.
Goal: Jay (83).
Referee: A. Bromley