A second half turn-around and a dramatic last minute penalty save from Joe Lewis kept Peterborough United’s automatic promotion hopes alive.
Darren Ferguson continued to favour his diamond formation. Mark Little returned to the starting line-up at right back whilst David Ball and Craig Mackail-Smith remained Ferguson’s strike partnership of choice. Peter Reid set-up his side in a formation that matched Posh’s. Carl Fletcher protected the back-line with Kari Arnason breaking forward to support the two strikers, Yannick Bolasie and Rory Fallon.
Plymouth may be a team fighting for their lives but it would have been easy for the players to have an excuse for not being motivated: they have not been paid since December such is the financial crisis at the club. Yet, the away side started the brighter. Moving the ball around swiftly they were causing problems and Posh were struggling to find space with both teams playing fairly narrow systems. Peterborough were almost made to pay for this sluggish start, perhaps as a result of complacency despite many of the squad insisting that “every game is a cup final”, when Grant McCann was caught in possession on the edge of his area by Bolasie before the mercurial attacking player struck his shot wide .
This was an early warning side – this Plymouth side were not about to roll-over, they were fully prepared to battle – but Posh did not take heed. When a corner wasn’t fully cleared the ball fell to Stephane Zubar, brother of Wolves’ defender Ronald, who smashed an effort goalwards. With Lewis beaten it appeared to be heading into the back of the net but a fantastic defensive block by Ryan Bennett prevented the division’s bottom club from taking an early lead. The danger wasn’t over yet though and from the resulting set-piece Rory Fallon found space at the front post but his flicked header landed on top of the net.
Plymouth’s system was working to perfection and limiting Posh’s attacking threat that had seen them score 94 league goals, and more than 100 in all competitions, up to now. With very little space to play Posh had struggled and their usual zest and tempo was not evident. Instead the passing was sloppy, the movement slow and the visitors were seizing the upper-hand. Plymouth may have been the club fighting relegation but from the evidence so far it seemed as if the table should have been reversed – Posh were looking like a team battling against the drop. A solitary George Boyd strike from range was about as much as Posh had created in the opening half-hour.
Indeed, only a brilliant bit of defending from Mark Little prevented the visitor’s from taking the lead. The right-back, who can be slack in his defensive duties at times, flicked a curling Arnason cross out for a corner with Bolasie waiting to provide the finishing touches. A front post corner had already caused Posh problems and Plymouth were not about to change their set-piece routine this time round. Again, poor marking from Posh allowed Fallon to flick a header goalwards but the ball, for the second time in the match, went inches over and landed on the top of the net.
Argyle had provided all the attacking endeavour so far and they were rewarded for their dominant first half performance in the 38th minute. George Boyd felt he was fouled by the corner flag, doing his defensive duties, but referee Nigel Miller was not convinced and Boyd retaliated making a rash tackle on Jim Paterson. Two corners had proved problematic so far so Boyd’s ill-discipline was a rash decision and he was made to pay for it in the harshest way possible. CARL FLETCHER was allowed to run to the front-post, something Posh should have reacted to by now, and Paterson spotted him firing in a low cross that was diverted goalwards by Fletcher with the ball creeping over the line beyond a despairing Joe Lewis who had no chance with the effort. Plymouth’s lead may have been a surprising one but few could have argued that it wasn’t deserved. They had out-competed, out-thought and out-played Posh up until this point.
An immediate reaction was needed, Posh invariably score but up to now they hadn’t threatened. Mackail-Smith charged forward, trying to drive on his team, but his shot was pushed out by David Button who was at full-stretch. It was the last action of an abject first-half from the hosts. The half-time whistle was greeted with boos from large sections of the home crowd, undeserved considering the league position that Peterborough currently occupy, but the performance had not been that of a promotion chasing side. A much improved one was needed in the second half.
MAKING AMENDS: Joe Lewis produced some magnificent saves to keep Posh’s lead in-tact.
Ferguson reacted to this too. Bringing on Lee Tomlin to play on the apex of the diamond, George Boyd dropped back to the left prong to add some much needed attacking impetus. Yet, the opening of the second half wasn’t particularly encouraging. Posh had attacked with slightly more pace but it still wasn’t clicking like it had on so many times to devastating effect on numerous times before this season.
Posh are always a good bet to score though, even when not in full-flow, and when Grant McCann floated over a wonderfully crafted cross it landed straight on RYAN BENNETT’S head. The defender still had some work to do but he positioned his body to loop a header over the top of Button and into the top corner of the net. Plymouth complained vociferously to the referee, feeling aggrieved after he had chosen not to stop play for Rory Fallon who was injured in the box but, as is so often reiterated, it is up to the players to stop play unless the injury is particularly severe. The goal provided Posh a foot-hold they probably didn’t deserve but it was now up to them to force the result. A draw didn’t favour either side which both desperately in need of wins in the final few games of the season.
Posh’s momentum was driving them forward but as a result they were also leaving gaps at the back. Gaps that have been exploited on many times this season and they were almost punished again. Charlie Lee was sluggish in getting back and allowed Bolasie to create a one-on-one opportunity against Gaby Zakuani, he rounded him and found himself inside the area with only Ryan Bennett to beat, checking inside he found a yard of space and hit a well struck shot goalwards only for the out-stretched arm of Lewis to palm the ball away.
Blue shirts were piling forward now. It was the Posh of old. Quick, slick passing with movement that was causing the Plymouth defence all sorts of problems. Mark Little epitomised this new found belief. Charging down the right flank he broke free of his marker before cutting the ball back to CRAIG MACKAIL-SMITH who lashed the ball home beyond Button and into the net. The game had turned. This is the ability Posh have, the ability to turn a game in an instant. An ability which separates them from many others at this level. However, they also have the ability to turn the game against them in an instant too. There is an almost schizophrenic nature to the team that has been evident for much of the season.
This was almost highlighted moments later. Just as Posh had got back into the match it seemed they would be pegged back again. After Plymouth broke down the right hand side they had man in the box and Simon Walton was left un-marked to head the ball goalwards. It was an excellent header too, right into the corner, but Joe Lewis was determined to stop it. Flinging himself to his right he managed to get an arm to it to keep Peterborough’s lead in-tact. It was a truly world-class save from a goalkeeper who has come under a lot of criticism in recent times but Posh’s improved defence can still be vulnerable.
Plymouth chose to introduce Luke Summerfield and Joe Mason as they looked to grab an elusive equaliser while Lee Frecklington made his long awaited return from injury to the Peterborough United line-up. Argyle were attacking in numbers, desperate to get themselves a point they had strived so hard to achieve and when Zubar went down in the box a half-hearted appeal went up. Nigel Miller, who is no stranger to controversy, decided that Frecklington had clipped the defender’s legs and pointed to the spot. Protests began with numerous Posh players surrounding the referee, convinced that they wasn’t a foul but it was too late now. Summerfield stepped up to take a crucial penalty. He struck it well too. Right into the bottom left hand corner. But Lewis had guessed right. Sticking out an arm he somehow managed to get a hand to the ball and turn it around the post. It was a genuinely magnificent save and in an instant he had gone from the villain to the hero. He had kept Posh’s three points, three points which could be vital, and made amends for some costly errors of late.
The celebrations at the final whistle reflected this too. All the team swamped Lewis, in a mass huddle. Again, it confirmed the Peterborough players desire to get promoted and showed a great team unity – the team, and management are fully behind Lewis, still – and with chants of the goalkeepers name surrounding the stadium that save may have gone some way to winning over the critics, for now at least. Plymouth, on the other, looked dejected they had given their all and came away empty handed with relegation now looking almost certain.
Has there ever been a show of greater collectiveness as a team than at the end of the match today? It was great to see the team surround Lewis at the end of the game. They realise what he has been through in recent weeks, I have been one of the critics in recent times, but he has bounced back today. With his display he proved Ferguson’s faith in him is justified and why so many Posh fans still regard him as a top prospect. There are two sides to Lewis’ game. Today he showed the side that had earnt him a senior England call-up. Today was Lewis’ day.
You have to feel for Plymouth. It was a magnificent turn-out from their supporters and their players. There have been far worse teams to come to London Road than Plymouth, currently bottom of the division, and if it wasn’t for financial mismanagement in previous regimes then the club would not be in this mess. They are not a club that belongs in League Two on that showing and the amount of supporters they brought in the circumstances shows just how much potential the club could, potentially, have.
For us today was massive. We battled through a poor 45 minutes and turned the game around. We cannot afford to slip up anymore, it simply isn’t an option. 4 wins from 4 is required. 86 points is the maximum but also the minimum points total we can achieve, anything less than that will probably not get us that 2nd spot. It may not be enough but we must do everything we can to achieve that total – imagine if we gave up now and Southampton or Huddersfield went up on 85 points, which could potentially happen. Both almost slipped up today but managed to grab late winners and they will consider themselves well placed for automatics too. We are the outsiders but we are still real contenders. Bring on Leyton Orient!
Up The Posh.