Plymouth Argyle 0, Barnsley 3
(SkyBet League One)
Three goals in the space of a blistering 13-minute first half spell added new impetus to Barnsley’s hopes of clinching the second automatic promotion place.
In recent games the Reds have been well below their best, despite churning out the right results, but at Home Park they produced a huge helping of Devon cream to consolidate their runners-up spot behind champions elect Luton Town with a third successive victory, roared joyously on by nearly a thousand travelling fans.
This was the kind of clinical performance which had characterised their play in the earlier part of the campaign and it is no exaggeration to say that they would have doubled the margin of victory but for a series of outstanding saves by former Barnsley goalkeeper Kyle Letheren.
Barnsley made just one change from the team which had beaten Shresbury at Oakwell three days earlier, Liam Lindsay returning after injury in place of Adam Jackson, and there was a hint in the eighth minute of what was to come, Letheren doing well to turn away a Cauley Woodrow shot which was destined for the bottom corner.
Seven minutes later the ‘keeper was left with no chance when Woodrow left-footed the ball low and true into the net from just inside the penalty area after fastening on to a superb crossfield pass from full-back Jordan Wiliams.
After Yann Songo’o had gone close for Argyle the Reds took a similar diagonal route to goal in the 22nd minute, this time from left to right, Dani Pinillos providing the pass and Jordan Brown the smart finish.
The three points were virtually in the bag six minutes later when a handball just outside the area provided Alex Mowatt with the opportunity to curl a delightful free-kick into the top corner.
A shell-shocked Plymouth simply had no answer to the wave of attacks and they were prevented from falling even further behind by another first class save from Letheren, diving to turn a bullet of a shot from Pinillos round the post for a fruitless corner.
The second half was all about game management as far as the Reds were concerned. They played keep-ball for long spells to deny the home team any possible opportunity to find a way back, but at the same time continued to keep Letheren busy.
He pulled off a good save from Mamadou Thiam and then an even better one from the same player as the ball curled towards the top corner. Next to be denied was the outstanding Mike Bahre and substitute Ryan Hedges suffered a similar fate as the goalkeeper continued his man-of-the-match brilliance.
Kieffer Moore, on as substitute for Thiam in the 69th minute, was soon in the thick of things as usual, but showed a little rustiness after his injury lay-off, twice wasting chances created for him by another substitute, Callum Styles, first shooting wide and then ballooning the ball over the bar from 12 yards.
However, all in all it was a decisive statement of intent as the Reds go into the last two fixtures still locked in a titanic battle with Sunderland and Portsmouth for the automatic promotion prize.
As they went into the Plymouth game they were already aware that Pompey had fought back from being a goal down at Fratton Park to beat Coventry City 2-1 in the lunchtime encounter, but the good news filtering through to the dressing room after the final whistle was that Sunderland had been held to a 1-1 draw on their visit to Peterborough.
The upshot was that the Reds remain in second spot with 88 points, two points behind Luton; Portsmouth are now third, with 86 points, and Sunderland are fourth with 84.
Both Portsmouth and Sunderland have a game in hand – away to Fleetwood Town and at home to Peterborough respectively next Tuesday night – but before that, these two teams clash at Roker Park on Saturday, while the Reds entertain Blackpool at Oakwell.
Everything still points to a nerve-wracking final day on the fourth of May.
Plymouth Argyle: Letheren; Threlkeld, Edwards, Jones, Sawyer, Fox (Ness, 80 mins), Songo’o, Carey, Sarcevic, Lameiras (Anderson, 80 mins), Taylor (Fletcher, 80 mins).
Barnsley (4-4-1-1): Davies; J Williams, Pinnock, Lindsay, Pinillos; Brown, McGeehan, Mowatt, Thiam (Moore, 69 mins); Bahre (Hedges, 79 mins); Woodrow (Styles, 79 mins).
Referee: Steve Martin.
Attendance: 10,898 (950 Reds).