Exeter City pushed themselves into playoff contention on Saturday with a 3-1 win over an ailing Stevenage at St James Park.
Story of the match
The opening exchanges started considerably even. Both sides let fly sighters on the few occasions the defences were breached, but possession largely remained cooped up in the middle third.
As the clock ticked into double figures, Exeter turned on the style. Nicky Law, one of three changes Grecians boss Matt Taylor made to the starting line-up, commanded midfield with slick passing that was too much for the back-tracking Stevenage defenders.
Soon after the explosion in intensity, City took the lead through an incredible effort from captain Archie Collins. The 21-year-old, who testified earlier this week that he wanted to “score more tap-ins”, picked up the ball on the edge of the centre circle and drove forward; taking one look at goal before launching a left-footed strike off the bottom of the crossbar from 25 yards.
With momentum behind them, the Grecians continued to pile on the pressure. Their passing was sensible and settled as they sought journeyman striker Ryan Bowman in the final third. Just before the half-hour mark, Bowman was presented with an opportunity to double the lead. Frenchman Nigel Atangana sent a cross into the box from the right-hand side, and Bowman leapt into a spectacular bicycle kick. Unfortunately for the neutral, the ambitious effort was scuffed wide.
The Boro failed to get back into proceedings before the break as they absorbed a well-oiled Exeter strike force. On the stroke of halftime, they saw an opening go begging when the ball fall to right-back Luther James-Wildin. The youngster tried his luck, but his low shot trickled safely into the arms of Jonny Maxted.
Stevenage enjoyed the first real chance of the second period, despite starting the half in a considerably subdued manner. Six minutes after the restart, Ben Coker lofted a neat ball over the defence for substitute Matthew Stevens to chase. The Englishman controlled it well and produced some stunning work to wriggle into space in the box. His shot was fierce but Maxted was equal to it, getting across well to tip the ball behind for a corner.
Matt Jay fired Exeter’s first chance of the half over from the edge of the box as the hour mark beckoned. Dancing his way around the defence, the 24-year-old found his path blocked. Law approached to provide assistance, and the pair escaped the blockade with a neat one-two. Jay’s subsequent shot was way off the mark of the far post; the ball curling both high and wide of Jamie Cumming’s goal.
Jay finally got the goal he had been threating with less than a quarter-of-an-hour to play. The ball fell kindly for the striker on the edge of the box, and he lashed home a luscious half-volley into the top-right corner. Cumming was rooted to the spot as he watched the ball hit his net for the second time.
Moments later the deficit was cut in half. Stevenage were enjoying one of their first breaks in a while when a corner was swung into the box. The dangerous cross caused some issues in the defence and substitute Elliott List reacted first to side-foot into the net.
It was a deficit to last just four minutes, as Exeter restored the two-goal cushion through Bowman’s 10th goal of the campaign. Law found his colleague out wide, and he smashed the shot into the top corner.
The win seems Exeter push into the bottom of the playoff spots with one game in hand over the clubs around them. Results elsewhere see Stevenage survive the relegation zone on goal difference, with bottom-placed Southend United just one point below.
Man of the match
Nicky Law – Exeter City
Nicky Law returned to the starting XI today after being used as a substitution for much of the season. The 32-year-old rewarded Matt Taylor’s decision with a commanding performance that saw him act as the beating heart of everything City did. His work rate and creativity went a long way to crafting a plethora of chances for the hosts, including assisting Bowman’s late sealer.