Tranmere Rovers survive at the top after Carlisle defeat as promotion rivals falter too
TRANMERE held onto pole position on a weekend when the League One promotion race looked more than ever like it will come down to a test of which teams can hold their nerve, composure and discipline over the final three months of the campaign.
Rovers were a little short of those last two qualities in suffering a third home defeat of the season at the hands of unfancied Carlisle United.
The setback wasn’t as costly as it could have been in terms of ground lost, because most of the leading teams also slipped up, including Doncaster, who missed the opportunity to go top by losing at Bury.
A division which produced five strong teams who were operating in a league of their own through much of 2011/12 has not, as yet, thrown up one side capable of pulling away from the rest this time around. No wonder most managers reckon the issue will go down to the wire and that any three from eight or nine teams are capable of finishing up in the Championship next season.
Those results elsewhere presented Tranmere with a chance to open up a gap on the pursuing pack. But they went about the job in the first half as if they had forgotten how to play the kind of football that took them to the top in the first place. There was little sign of the high tempo passing and movement, the pressing and turning of the opposition that has been so effective home and away.
Tranmere played to Carlisle’s strengths by launching long high ball down the middle to be gobbled up by a dominant pair of centre backs Danny Livesey and Sean O’Hanlon. Then in the final 10 minutes of the opening period they turned an unattractive game into a very difficult one.
Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro’s 37th minute dismissal for an act of petulance was expensive, not just in terms of putting Tranmere at a disadvantage through the last hour of the contest but in taking out the squad’s most potent attacking player for the next three games through suspension.
Akpa Akpro lost his temper when challenging for a ball with Carlisle’s Frank Simak near the touchline.
The full-back’s arm or elbow might have been a little high but the incident did not look serious enough to warrant the Frenchman taking a retaliatory swipe with his boot.
It was an air shot but the intent was obvious enough to give referee Tony Harrington no other option than the raising of a red card.
Akpa Akpro’s act of folly was compounded by the surrender of an untidy goal on 44 minutes.
A half cleared corner, knocked back into the area by Matty Robson fell to Rory Loy and the centre forward’s half hit shot bobbled between two defenders and beyond the reach of goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams to finish in the far corner of the net.
That left Tranmere with the task of trying to lift their performance level and chase the game with 10 men.
They made a brave attempt, aided by some rousing support from the crowd, and could claim they put the visitors under enough second-half pressure to merit a draw.
But give credit to Carlisle, who played their hand shrewdly and positively and made life difficult for the home side in every area of the pitch.
Manager Greg Abbott said: “Our game plan worked fantastically well. I thought we were outstanding. The red card ruined the game because we were on top when it was 11 versus 11.”
Carlisle were bold enough to match Tranmere’s 4-4-2 formation and attempt to seize the initiative in midfield.
At the same time they were so concerned about the threat of Andy Robinson – who scored a hat-trick in the reverse fixture at Brunton Park in August – that they channelled the play to the opposite side to Robinson’s left midfield field station at every opportunity.
The visitors looked the team most likely to score before Akpa Akpro’s departure.
A left-wing corner by JP McGovern struck the foot of the near post and rebounded across the goalmouth to safety and Fon Williams had to make a smothering save after Andy Welsh charged down a clearance from Ash Taylor to get a run on goal in the 27th minute.
Carlisle goalkeeper Mark Gillespie made an equally resourceful save to deny David Amoo on the edge of the box in the 28th minute.
It was Tranmere’s only dangerous attack of the first 45 minutes, although Taylor claimed Matty Robson handled his header at the near post in the 42nd minute.
Tranmere found some rhythm and cohesion in their passing after the interval., while the visitors remained a threat on the break
When Adam McGurk headed Zoumana Bakayogo’s left-wing cross towards the bottom left-hand corner in the 50th minute, Gillespie sprang across goal to make a catch, then followed up with a flying punch from Liam Palmer’s 25 yard effort on 64 minutes.
Robinson became more influential by roaming across all areas and teenage striker Cole Stockton, introduced in place of David Amoo on 62 minutes, forced his way past two defenders in the box to drive in a shot that was deflected away from a target while McGurk waited in vain for a pullback.
The crowd and many of the home players thought Tranmere had equalised when Robinson’s freekick from the left on 72 minutes took a deflection to run along the goal-line and present an easy tap-in for Palmer .
But an offside flag ensured the midfielder’s long wait for his first Rovers goal must go on.
Four minutes of extra time yielded another chance, this time for Bakayogo, whose header from Danny Holmes’ cross was close enough to Gillespie for the goalkeeper to make a comfortable save.