Torquay taught a harsh lesson as Fleetwood demonstrate their class
ALAN KNILL had predicted that this match might be what he called a "benchmark" of where Torquay United stood at this early stage of the season, but the Gulls' manager must have wished that the message it delivered was brighter.
Fleetwood Town were everything that many pundits expect them to be. United never threatened their match-long superiority, even when substitute Elliot Benyon grabbed a consolation goal to make it 3-1 in the 89th minute.
When your goalkeeper is your best player and you still concede four goals, you know what sort of a day it has been.
Without a series of saves, most smart and some spectacular, by Martin Rice, the contest might have been over by half-time.
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The real problems did not lie in United's back-four either. But when a League Two defence is put under the sort of pressure that Fleetwood exerted in the blustery sunshine and showers of the Highbury Stadium, something usually has to give.
The fact is that home goalkeeper Scott Davies did not have a serious save to make until teenager Danny Sullivan tested him in the 85th minute.
Graham Alexander's Shrimps have one of the strongest squads in the division.
They beat Plymouth Argyle 2-0 at Home Park last month and the man who scored both goals that day, David Ball, could not even get in the starting line-up on Saturday. Neither could players like Jon Parkin, Matty Blair, Stewart Murdoch and ex-Stevenage favourite Mark Roberts, who is also the club captain.
Most other clubs at this level would have them in their team any day.
Alexander's much-changed side had won 2-1 at League One Tranmere Rovers in the midweek Johnstone's Paint Trophy, and he stuck with most of the players who had done that job, although he admitted that it had taken him nearly two days to make his mind up.
From the moment that Town midfielder Steven Schumacher – he and centre-back Richard Creswell had both played under Knill at Bury a few years ago – hit the post from 22 yards in the fifth minute, United were on the back foot.
Knill had rested left-back Kevin Nicholson, midfielder skipper Lee Mansell and striker Karl Hawley in the JPT, but he brought that trio back, keeping Courtney Cameron on the left wing in place of Billy Bodin, still away on international duty.
Cameron did lay on a cross for Callum Ball to stab just wide of the near post early on, but the tide of play was definitely pounding at the other end.
Jamille Matt and an unmarked Nathan Pond headed over, and Rice pulled off two brilliant saves from Matt and Creswell before the breakthrough came in the tenth minute.
Gareth Evans' corner was headed home by Antoni Sarcevic, a summer signing from Chester City.
Fleetwood asked the tall Matt to occupy United centre-backs Krystian Pearce and Aaron Downes, something he did well, and supported him from a fluid formation that changed constantly between 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-3, with wingers Evans and Junior Brown pushing on from a dominant midfield.
Torquay had used a similar system over the last couple of years with Rene Howe as the lone targetman.
Even with the wind behind them United could make little impression, Rice denying Matt and Schumacher, but they did put together a more encouraging spell of passing just after the half-hour mark.
Jordan Chapell gave a spirited display on the right wing all afternoon.
If they could just have made it to half-time only one goal down, they might have had something to get their teeth into, but that hope ended in the 37th minute.
Mansell tried to complete a clearance by Downes, but Sarcevic beat him to it, made ground and drilled a left-foot shot from outside the area into the bottom left-hand corner.
Without another flying save by Rice, this time to tip Creswell's set-piece header over the bar, Fleetwood would have stretched their lead straight after the restart.
When Rice made his first mistake, a misplaced kick, he deservedly got away with it, but in the 62nd minute he failed to hold an Evans corner and this time he was not so lucky. The ball dropped for Matt, and he could hardly miss from close-range.
Knill sent on 18-year-old Sullivan and Benyon for Cameron and Hawley, but Fleetwood had the points in the bag and they took their foot off the pedal for a spell.
United forced a series of corners without reward and, just as he had done in the JPT tie against Portsmouth in midweek, Sullivan gave United's attack a lift.
He forced Davies to tip away his well-struck shot in the 85th minute and then, four minutes later, supplied the pass for Benyon to unleash a sweet right-foot effort from 20 yards that had Davies beaten all the way, in off the left-hand post.
That might have made things look a little more respectable, but as the match moved into stoppage-time Fleetwood, with Blair on for Evans, made their final and emphatic point.
With his first touch of the ball Blair finished Ball's counter-attacking low cross with a firm shot across Rice to make it 4-1.
If Fleetwood don't make the play-offs at least, something will have to go very wrong or League Two will have proved to be a lot stronger than it looks.