Pilgrims' triple sinks lacklustre U's

COLCHESTER United were sunk without a trace by buoyant Plymouth in a one-sided Championship encounter at Home Park last night.The lacklustre U's were second best all evening, and were lucky to escape with just a 3-0 score-line.

By Carl Marston

COLCHESTER United were sunk without a trace by buoyant Plymouth in a one-sided Championship encounter at Home Park last night.

The lacklustre U's were second best all evening, and were lucky to escape with just a 3-0 score-line.

It could have been a far heavier defeat, but for some excellent saves from Dean Gerken and some indifferent finishing from the hosts.

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From the moment that David Norris fired Argyle into a 12th minute lead, there was only team in the driving seat - Geraint Williams' men just could not get going on a pudding of a pitch.

They were lucky that Wayne Brown was not sent off in the 59th minute, after the U's defender hacked down Sylvan Ebanks-Blake in the box with a crude challenge.

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Referee Ray Olivier gave Brown the benefit of the doubt, deciding to book him rather than show him a red card, but Ebanks-Blake still converted the penalty to give Plymouth some breathing space.

Teenager Dan Gosling scored his first senior goal to make it 3-0 in the 67th minute, and Plymouth had numerous other chances to rub salt into the Colchester wounds during the final quarter of the game.

The U's are still in ninth spot, and have already enjoyed a terrific season, but this was a night that they will want to forget in a hurry.

It was by far their poorest performance of the season.

For the first time this season, the U's started a match without Kem Izzet in their ranks. Izzet was serving a one-match suspension, after picking up his fifth booking in the 2-1 home defeat by West Brom.

That paved the way for Richard Garcia's recall on the flank, with Johnnie Jackson shifting from the left wing into central midfield.

Hosts Plymouth, fresh from their FA Cup fifth round victory over Derby County on Saturday, were unchanged. No doubt competition for places will hot up as they look forward to a quarter-final home tie against Watford next month.

The Pilgrims carved out the game's first chance on six minutes. Wayne Brown charged down Sylvan Ebanks-Blake's goalbound drive and, from the ensuing corner, defender Krisztian Timar's header flashed wide of the far upright.

Play was then held up for a couple of minutes, after assistant referee Mr Smart pulled up with a hamstring problem. He had to limp off, to be replaced by fourth official Mr Sainsbury.

The hold-up did Colchester no favours, because they fell behind almost straight away, undone by a cracking strike from Norris.

Midfielder Norris was allowed to run across the face of the penalty area before unleashing a thunderous shot that soared past Dean Gerken and into the top corner of the net. It was his fifth goal of the season.

Norris has had a history of scoring against Colchester. In fact, the 25-year-old netted on the U's last trip to Home Park, on the final day of the 2003-04 season. That ended in a 2-0 defeat.

The U's tried to find a quick response. Chris Iwelumo posted their first effort on target with a low drive that keeper Luke McCormick smothered down to this right.

But otherwise they were largely on the defensive. Dan Gosling and Norris exchanged a one-two on the edge of the box in the 20th minute, and Gosling's final shot forced a smart save out of Gerken.

Three minutes later and right-back Paul Connolly sneaked behind the U's back-line. He pumped a low cross into the six-yard box, where John White's hasty clearance struck Scott Sinclair and rebounded for a goal-kick.

At the other end, Garcia charged down the right wing and delivered a teasing cross in the direction of Jamie Cureton, whose downward header was well saved by McCormick on the goal-line. Otherwise, Cureton would have been celebrating his 16th goal of the season.

Chris Barker earned the U's their first corner of the night on the half-hour mark. Kevin Watson floated over the set piece to the near post, where White lost his footing and Brown was beaten in the air. Plymouth therefore easily cleared their lines.

United were on the attack again in the 37th minute. Chris Iwelumo nodded on a long throw and Cureton poked goalwards. There was a suspicion of handball by Pilgrims defender Timar, and Cureton appealed, but referee Ray Olivier merely waved play on and McCormick scooped up.

Argyle were good value for their half-time lead, and a stray pass from Watson nearly led to a second goal on 41 minutes. Ebanks-Blake spearheaded a quick break, and the U's were hopelessly outnumbered at the back. It was a relief when Chelsea loanee Sinclair overran the ball, enabling Gerken to scurry off his line and collect.

The home side continued to look the more dangerous at the start of the second period. Left-back Gary Sawyer whipped over a wicked cross that Brown was at full stretch to intercept at the near post.

But Brown was caught out as Ian Holloway's men took a two-goal lead in the 59th minute, courtesy of Ebanks-Blake's deadly penalty.

Brown was in fact lucky to stay on the pitch when Ebanks-Blake scurried onto Marcel Seip's exquisite through ball. The U's defender brought him crashing to the ground with a late challenge. It was a clear penalty, and the fear was that Brown would be sent off.

Brown was the last man, but Mr Olivier showed him mercy by showing him a yellow card rather than red. Ebanks-Blake crashed home the spot kick, straight down the middle, to put Argyle in complete charge.

The visitors were well and truly on the rack. Gerken saved superbly from Sinclair, but Connolly should really have scored from the rebound - he lifted his shot over the bar with an unguarded net beckoning.

The over-worked Gerken then performed heroics to beat away two shots from Sinclair, in quick succession, on 66 minutes. But the U's keeper was powerless to prevent Plymouth from taking a three-goal lead in the 67th minute.

Gosling pounced onto the loose ball, following Chris Barker's intervention, and the Pilgrims winger buried his shot from 12 yards out, even though Gerken did get a touch to the ball.

It was one-way traffic. Pilgrims boss Holloway decided to make a triple substitution on 75 minutes, and one of these substitutes, Rory Fallon, missed a sitter just two minutes later.

Fallon looked sure to divert home Sinclair's low cross, but he scuffed his shot wide from just two yards out.

The U's were spared again in the 81st minute. Sinclair had been dazzling all evening, and he left three U's defenders trailing in his wake before ballooning a shot over the bar with just Gerken to beat.

Home keeper McCormick had been virtually redundant in the second period.

He was at last called into action again on 82 minutes, blocking substitute Hogan Ephraim's angled drive with his body.

That was only some light relief for the beleagured U's.

It should have been 4-0 shortly afterwards, as Gerken let the ball slip through his hands, but substitute Peter Halmosi's goalbound shot was charged down by skipper Karl Duguid inside the six-yard box.

The U's were relieved to hear the final whistle. It had been a long and fruitless trip to Devon.

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