Plymouth Argyle can take encouragement from earning Devon derby draw
IT WAS a point apiece in the Devon derby at St James' Park on Saturday and, on the balance of play, few could argue about that outcome.
Exeter had more clear-cut chances than Argyle, with Grecians' top scorer Jamie Cureton uncharacteristically wasteful in front of goal.
The Pilgrims, though, had the majority of the possession in the second half and were good value for winger Joe Lennox's 72nd minute equaliser.
If truth be told, both sides seemed prepared to settle for a draw in the closing stages of the game.
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That was until the dismissal of Argyle centre-back Maxime Blanchard in the 88th minute for a second bookable offence.
Exeter then applied some late pressure and midfielder Scot Bennett spurned a good scoring chance in stoppage time.
Argyle will take encouragement from taking a point in the Devon derby after beating York City 2-0 at Home Park the previous Saturday.
It gives them a platform to try and build on during the Christmas and New Year period, starting at Accrington Stanley this weekend.
However, their sheer inconsistency – during games as well as from one to another – continues to be a problem for them, and to their ambitions of moving up the table.
Exeter made a sluggish start to the contest and the Pilgrims had an opportunity to take the early initiative, but could not do that.
By half-time Argyle were trailing 1-0, after a 34th minute goal from City midfielder Liam Sercombe.
Former Pilgrims' playmaker Alan Gow had become an increasing influence on the match and the Grecians must have been confident of picking up maximum points.
Cureton should have put them 2-0 up soon after the restart and Argyle made the most of that let-off.
Slowly but surely, they increased the pressure on Exeter and eventually got their reward when Lennox fired home.
Having drawn level, though, the Pilgrims could not continue their momentum and Exeter finished the stronger side, especially after Blanchard's dismissal.
Defensively, Argyle coped reasonably well with the attacking threat of Cureton, John O'Flynn and Gow.
Midfielder Conor Hourihane was deployed in a deeper role than usual to stop Gow from showcasing his skills on the ball and, generally, did a decent job of that.
Gow had his moments, but his influence faded after half-time and he was eventually substituted.
Argyle manager Carl Fletcher decided against recalling Durrell Berry to the starting line-up after his one-match suspension.
Curtis Nelson continued at right-back and put in the latest of an increasing number of good performances.
Captain Darren Purse was also at his commanding best, making one crucial tackle on Cureton inside the penalty area early on.
The fact 35-year-old Purse is on the transfer list has clearly not affected him on the pitch.
His centre-back partner Maxime Blanchard had an eventful afternoon. Sercombe's goal came after the ball took a deflection off the Frenchman.
He was then sent off near the end of the contest but, overall, put in a solid performance.
Argyle did not carry much threat about them until the second half, with lone striker Rhys Griffiths not getting the service he needed to thrive.
There were too many long balls aimed down the middle of the pitch to him, and not enough from wide positions.
That is not going to get the best out of Griffiths and the Pilgrims must start to take that into account when the former South Wales fireman is in the team.
Otherwise, they will be better suited to using Nick Chadwick as a hold-up type of forward, with team-mates running off him.
Argyle goalkeeper Rene Gilmartin was not tested too often by Exeter, although he had to tip a free-kick from Sercombe over the crossbar in the 13th minute.
From the resulting corner, also taken by Sercombe, Bennett headed across the face of goal at the far post when he should have hit least hit the target.
Gow shot narrowly wide from 30 yards after the half-hour mark before Sercombe broke the deadlock.
Argyle lost possession and with left-back Onismor Bhasera out of position the Exeter midfielder received the ball from defender Danny Coles.
Bhasera raced back but could not prevent Sercombe from unleashing a shot which took a slight deflection off Blanchard and found the bottom corner of the net.
Argyle had to wait until the 45th minute for their first attempt on target when Lennox's volley was easily dealt with by Artur Krysiak.
Robbie Williams was a half-time substitute for Argentine playmaker Andres Gurrieri.
That meant Williams played at left-back, with Bhasera pushed forward into a wide midfield role and Luke Young moving inside, as the main support to Griffiths.
Williams had a torrid start on his return from a two-month lay-off caused by a stomach muscle injury.
First, his header to Gilmartin was intercepted by Cureton and the free-scoring Exeter striker had only Argyle's keeper to beat.
Incredibly, he sent the ball high and wide of the left post, instead of getting goal number 16 of the season.
Williams was then yellow-carded for a foul on Sercombe but eventually settled and Argyle had some good spells of pressure.
Fletcher sent on Chadwick and Warren Feeney, for Griffiths and Hourihane, in the 66th minute.
Young had a goalbound shot bravely blocked by Coles but you could sense a goal was coming for the Pilgrims and, sure enough, it did.
Lennox cut in from the right flank and, from 20 yards, crashed the ball into the net off the inside of the far post.
The Green Army, most of who were packed into the uncovered away end which had been soaked by rain earlier on, celebrated wildly.
Argyle's on-loan Bournemouth midfielder Mark Molesley had a 20-yard strike saved by Krysiak before Cureton squandered another clearcut chance.
Cureton darted in behind the defence but dragged his shot wide of the right post from inside the box.
Blanchard's red card put paid to any hopes the Pilgrims had of grabbing a winning goal.
He blocked O'Flynn after the Exeter striker had headed the ball past him and, having already been booked, referee Andy Woolmer had no option but to send Blanchard off.
It set up a tense finale in which Bennett headed wide from a good position after a cross from right-back Steve Tully.
Finally, after six minutes of stoppage time, Woolmer called a halt to proceedings.