Plymouth Argyle 0
Taylor 41 Vetokele 47
By Kevin Nolan at Home Park.
Charlton’s accelerating juggernaut rumbled relentlessly onwards in English football’s most sou’westerly outpost, where initially impressive Plymouth came to rue their early lack of killer instinct.
After dominating for more than half an hour, during which their missed chances included a squandered penalty, the Pilgrims succumbed to their visitors’ first genuine opportunity four minutes before the break, then buckled again immediately upon resumption. What remained was a leisurely walk in Home Park for Lee Bowyer’s men, who made it nine consecutive unbeaten games – five of them wins – plus their third successive clean sheet.
That opening period, though, was an uphill struggle for the out-of-sorts Addicks, who had the excellence of goalkeeper Dillon Phillips to thank for staving off imminent collapse.
The 23-year-old stopper made a string of fine saves, including a special one from Graham Carey’s thunderbolt, which he spectacularly finger-tipped over the bar without, as a refereeing bonus, even conceding a corner.
In the earlier going, he plunged low to his right to keep out Carey’s waspish drive, then repeated the feat to deny Freddie Ladapo’s similar effort. Luck lent the brilliant keeper a hand when the fumbling, bumbling duo of Ladapo and Ryan Edwards between them contrived to shovel Carey’s corner lamely wide from three unopposed yards.
But it was Phillips’ piece-de-resistance six minutes before the break, which turned this one-sided game on its head.
Portuguese playmaker Reuben Lameiras had been the focal point of Argyle’s opening salvo, his tantalising ball skills inviting regular fouls, from which he was all too ready to crumple theatrically.
Naby Sarr was a softly booked victim of his wiles but it was Krystian Bielik who fatally fell for the old shell game inside Charlton’s penalty area.
Shown the ball on his outside, he left a careless leg dangling as his quarry turned sharply inside him. Contact was marginal but definite, referee Charles Breakspear’s penalty award inevitable, Lameiras’ satisfied reaction was smug but – as it turned out – premature.
Stepping up to take the spot-kick, set-piece specialist Carey guessed correctly that Phillips would dive to his left and aimed his shot for the middle of the goal. He failed to factor in the flailing legs left in the keeper’s wake, however, and was chagrined as his firmly-hit drive was deliberately kicked to safety. Carey’s – and Argyle’s – bolt had been shot. As an attacking force, they were already finished.
The missed penalty was injury enough. Two minutes later, insult was added by the suddenly cock-a-hoop visitors, who celebrated their escape by scoring a stunning opening goal. The groundwork was laid by Josh Cullen’s clever ball retention and astutely released pass which sent Chris Solly darting behind Grant Sawyer to the right byline. The skipper’s tasty cross was matched by the quality of the header bulleted by Lyle Taylor into the roof of the net off Matt Macy’s despairing hand.
Their early superiority exposed as ephemeral, the Pilgrims were finished off by a second goal three minutes after the break. The persistence of Johnny Williams on the left flank shook off Oscar Threlkeld’s pursuit and set up the Welsh midfielder’s low cross into the six-yard area. An untidy triumvirate of Niall Canavan, Macey and Igor Vetokele scrambled the ball home at the near post with Charlton’s goal-starved striker sensibly claiming the credit.
As a valid contest, this one was effectively over.
Relaxed, confident, even cocky, the Addicks didn’t so much game-manage as stroll nonchalantly to the finishing line.
In its dying embers, Taylor orchestrated Solly and effective substitute George Lapslie in prolonged, almost insolent, possession near the right corner flag, meanwhile conducting the travelling civilians behind the goal in a spirited round of applause. It was that comfortable by then.
As the play-offs loom, with Portsmouth their likely semi-final opponents, Bowyer’s injury-ravaged squad is nearing full strength as key players return from long term absences.
The manager will welcome the luxury of selection headaches, with his choices far from obvious. The steady improvement of fans’ favourite Sarr, for instance, has meant that Jason Pearce, an automatic starter before his injury at Barnsley on December 29, has found it difficult to reclaim his place.
Likewise, Lewis Page, missing since September but recently returned to training, might encounter similar problems in dislodging the quietly efficient Ben Purrington at left-back.
Such dilemmas are a novelty for Charlton’s rookie boss, of course, posers he will undoubtedly relish solving. The 63rd minute withdrawal of injury-prone Bielik, following two prolonged bouts of on-field treatment might add another crease to his already wrinkled brow.
But, on the plus side, his bench down in deepest Devon was impressively strong, its three unused outfield members already battle-hardened veterans of this long, arduous campaign.
Cover in every position – it’s a manager’s dream.
It might pay to wrap the brilliant Bielik in cotton wool for the time being, though, not to mention the irrepressible but equally vulnerable Williams as well. Can’t be too careful.
Charlton (4-1-3-2): Phillips 9, Solly, 8, Bauer 8, Sarr 8, Purrington 7, Bielik 7 (Pratley 63, 7), Cullen 8, Aribo 7, Williams 7 (Parker 79), Vetokele 7 (Lapslie 74, 7), Taylor 8. Not used: Maxwell, Dijksteel, Pearce, Reeves.