Missed chances mean that Torquay United have it all to do if they want to get to Wembley
Robbed of injured target man Rene Howe after the brightest of starts at Abbey Business Stadium yesterday, Torquay United must stage a major fightback after missed chances cost them dear against npower League Two play-offs rivals Cheltenham Town.
Leading scorer Howe, who went down to a first-half hamstring injury after recovering from a groin strain to start the match, will not make it for Thursday's second leg.
Goals by winger Jermaine McGlashan in the 26th minute and on-loan centre-forward Ben Burgess in the 50th punished United's wasteful finishing and make Mark Yates' Robins the favourites to reach Wembley, after a 2-0 win.
Perhaps Martin Ling's Gulls did not deserve to lose by two goals in Gloucestershire, for they were at least as good as Cheltenham for long periods, especially in the first half. But you cannot miss the sort of chances they squandered yesterday and hope to win a match of such importance.
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As expected, Yates made a raft of changes from the "weakened" side which won 2-1 at Plymouth Argyle eight days before. They included the recall of central defenders Alan Bennett and Steve Elliott, midfielders Luke Summerfield and Kaid Mohamed and striker Burgess.
Ling was forced to make one switch, winger Danny Stevens' overnight sickness ruling him out and prompting a promotion for Ryan Jarvis.
Some people may have expected a cagey start, with so long to go in the tie, but what they got was an up-and-at-'em, end-to-end first half.
The die was cast from only the second minute when Ian Morris flicked on Mark Ellis's clearance and Howe brushed past Steve Elliott before firing over from just inside the area.
That was a real chance, and an even better one fell to Jarvis in the 12th minute. He had goalkeeper Scott Brown to beat, after a good move between O'Kane and Howe, but the ball would not drop quickly enough for the on-loan Torquay forward and Brown managed to get a touch as the ball flew wide.
It was still a big chance missed. Moments later, Eunan O'Kane spotted Jarvis on the move down the middle, put the pass on the money, and Jarvis only just failed to get past the last defender.
It was good stuff from the Gulls, but there was also a down side, and that was the fitness of Howe.
It was not his troublesome groin strain causing the problem this time, but his right hamstring, which he repeatedly tried to stretch off as Ling expressed growing concern on the touchline.
When it became clear that Howe's mobility was seriously impaired, Ling took him off, to Howe's obvious disappointment, and sent on Taiwo Atieno in the 18th minute.
United still looked the more dangerous side, Joe Oastler firing a 16-yard volley over after good work by O'Kane, Nicholson and Morris.
Cheltenham midfielder Marlon Pack sent a couple of long-range efforts wide as the Robins persisted in trying to hit Burgess in the air with long balls.
It took 24 minutes before the first foul, which was testament to the spirit in which the match was played, despite the stakes on offer.
Perhaps United were almost too confident in those early stages, for, in the 26th minute, they tried to play out from the back and paid a heavy price.
They lost possession when they tried to go into midfield and Summerfield spotted McGlashan on a run behind Nicholson. Summerfield supplied the pass inside United's left-back, McGlashan was on to it and beat Bobby Olejnik with an angled shot across the Gulls' goalkeeper and in off the far post.
United still looked the team more likely to score, and Brown did well to push a Morris 25-yarder, which bounced just in front of him, round his post.
It was vital that United started the second half as they had the first, but instead it was Cheltenham who seized the initiative.
In a two-minute spell, the match turned.
Elliott and Spencer both went close for the Robins and then, in the 50th minute, United did not close McGlashan down well enough, he chipped a diagonal cross to the left-hand post, where Burgess, unmarked, powered a 12-yard header past Olejnik.
Seconds later, Jarvis had a second great chance but headed against the underside the bar, down and away when he seemed certain to score.
The second goal seemed to undermine United's attacking confidence.
In the 63rd minute, Kaid Mohamed, who posed a regular attack on the counter in the second half, shot from the left, a touch off Brian Saah beat Olejnik, but Ellis got back to scoop the ball over his own bar.
A third goal and it would have been all over, but Cheltenham were caught between going for it and settling for a 2-0 win.
It gave Torquay the chance to cut the deficit, and, in the last ten minutes, they finally sensed that the Robins had taken their foot off the pedal.
Atieno forced a fine save from Brown with a 15-yard snap-shot, and, in the 89th minute, Nicholson hung a long cross from the left to the far post, where Atieno powered in a downward header which Brown somehow parried off his goal-line.
Those two efforts were the only saves which Brown had to make in the second half, in contrast to his busy 45 minutes before the interval.
United will have to do better than that when it counts at Plainmoor on Thursday night.
Cheltenham Town (4-4-2): Brown; Lowe, Bennett, Elliott, Jombarti; McGlashan, Summerfield, Pack, Mohamed (Smikle 90); Burgess (Duffy 83), Spencer (Goulding 80). Substitutes (not used): Penn, Hooman.
Goals: McGlashan 27, Burgess 50.
Torquay United (4-1-4-1): Olejnik; Oastler, Saah, Ellis, Nicholson; Lathrope (Rowe-Turner 70); Jarvis, Mansell, O'Kane, Morris; Howe (Atieno 18). Substitutes (not used): Rice (gk), McPhee, MacDonald.
Referee: J Adcock (Nottingham).