Crucial week for Plymouth Argyle in fight to stay in Football League
ARGYLE are facing a crucial week in their fight to stay in the Football League after losing to Northampton on Saturday.
Back-to-back 1-0 defeats, at home to Oxford United and then against Northampton at Sixfields Stadium, have plunged the Pilgrims to the bottom of the table.
Two vital games against relegation rivals are next on the agenda for Argyle.
They are away to AFC Wimbledon, who have picked up seven points from their last three matches, tomorrow night.
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Then the Pilgrims will play Barnet – Edgar Davids and all – at Home Park on Saturday.
It has the potential to be a defining week in the season, one way or another, for Argyle and they enter it licking their wounds from losing to Northampton.
There was much anger and frustration among the players and staff after the final whistle on Saturday.
They were convinced Northampton's goal, which came in the 70th minute, should not have been awarded because of a foul on keeper Jake Cole.
Referee David Phillips thought otherwise and television evidence backed up his belief.
Cole was actually impeded by team-mate Paris Cowan-Hall as he tried to catch a corner and the ball spilled from his grasp.
Northampton striker Clive Platt was subsequently credited with touching the ball over the line.
Argyle's sense of frustration after the game was heightened by the fact they thought their fighting spirit deserved the reward of at least a point.
Northampton now have the best home record in League Two with 12 wins and two draws from 17 games.
Yet, for much of the first half, the Pilgrims were the better team and created the best chances.
Northampton adopted a more route one approach after half-time, using the strength and height of their players to put Argyle under pressure.
The visitors were coping with that defensively until the 70th minute when they were undone at a corner.
Argyle manager John Sheridan sent on a trio of attacking substitutes after that goal, but without much success, as his side chased an equaliser.
However, that meant Northampton had more space to attack into and they could have extended their lead with better finishing.
It was a much more committed performance from the Pilgrims than against Oxford the previous Saturday.
But Argyle's lack of goals, with only two coming in the last five games, has to be a cause for concern.
Wins, not draws, are needed and they must find the firepower from somewhere to achieve the required results.
Northampton boss Aidy Boothroyd decided not to include 17-goal top scorer Adebayo Akinfenwa in his starting line-up.
Such is the strength and experience in his squad that Boothroyd could still call upon two former Championship strikers in Roy O'Donovan and Platt.
They were well contained by Argyle in the first half, with Cole not forced into any saves of note.
Plymouth-born midfielder Ben Tozer unleashed a barrage of long throw-ins but the Pilgrims stood up to that threat.
If they did not win the ball initially, they made sure of getting the next touch to it.
With Paul Wotton in a midfield holding role there was some solidity about Argyle and they played with increasing confidence.
On-loan Crystal Palace winger Jason Banton was their main threat with some strong, positive running.
The Pilgrims had a good chance to take the lead in the 17th minute when midfielder Conor Hourihane swung a free-kick into the Northampton penalty area.
Centre-back Guy Branston got on the end of it but could not direct his header on target.
Midfield duo Ben Harding and Chris Hackett both shot wide for Northampton before Banton almost broke the deadlock in the 31st minute.
Banton skipped past a couple of challenges and created an excellent shooting opportunity.
The 21-year-old let fly with a powerful strike but the Cobblers centre-back Kelvin Langmead threw his body in the way of it.
Wotton fired narrowly wide from 35 yards as Argyle had a good spell before half-time.
They could not get a goal, though, with former Northampton defender Anthony Charles having a weak header saved by Lee Nicholls in the 41st minute after a cross from Hourihane.
Northampton upped the tempo after half-time and forced the Pilgrims more onto the defensive.
O'Donovan sent a glancing header wide of the far post after a right-wing cross from Hackett less than a minute into the second period.
Cole saved a free-kick from Hackett before centre-back Clarke Carlisle headed over the crossbar from one of Tozer's many long throw-ins.
In between, Argyle left-back Onismor Bhasera had a 30-yard drive well saved by Lee Nicholls.
The decisive moment of the match came in the 70th minute, by which time the burly Akinfenwa had been sent on as a substitute.
Akinfenwa chased after the ball as it was launched forward and Argyle defender Maxime Blanchard, running towards his own goal, could not deal with it.
Instead, Akinfenwa got on the end of it and his header was superbly tipped over the bar by Cole.
Harding took the resulting corner and aimed it to the far post where Cole initially seemed to catch the ball, only to drop it and the ball ended up in the net.
Platt claimed he had got the final touch while Argyle protested it should have been a free-kick to them.
Their protests were in vain and they lost their way after that despite the introduction of Gozie Ugwu, Andres Gurrieri and Ronan Murray as substitutes.
Charles did send one header wide from a corner but that was as close as Argyle came to an equaliser.
Northampton had a couple of good chances to extend their lead late on, first when Akinfenwa blazed over the bar from only six yards out.
Then, substitute Jake Robinson took the ball around Cole, who had raced outside his penalty area, but then shot too high from a tight angle.
Those misses did not prove costly, however, as Northampton kept up their promotion push with another home victory.
The match was watched by Northampton's best attendance of the season – 5,382, which is more than 1,000 below Argyle's average gate at Home Park.
Among the crowd on a bitterly cold afternoon were 615 loyal members of the Green Army.
Few clubs anywhere in the Football League, were they to find themselves in the same position as Argyle are in now, would command that level of away support.
More of the same can be expected when the Pilgrims take on Wimbledon.