Arca's return keeps Sunderland flying

Sunderland 5 - Plymouth Argyle 1
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Sunderland comfortably kept up their side of the bargain as the three clubs playing musical chairs for the two automatic promotion spots to the Premiership raised the ante with victories last night.

Sunderland comfortably kept up their side of the bargain as the three clubs playing musical chairs for the two automatic promotion spots to the Premiership raised the ante with victories last night.

A fifth consecutive win keeps Mick McCarthy's side level on points with the leaders, Wigan, and three better off than Ipswich in a contest looking increasingly likely to go down to the wire. Stubborn Plymouth - who remain in relegation danger - were finally broken by a three-goal burst in the 15 minutes before half-time. The defender Stephen Caldwell embellished the margin of victory by heading in a cross delivered by substitute Liam Lawrence 15 minutes from the end.

Scott Taylor hit a late consolation for Argyle, a right-foot shot from 12 yards out angled across the keeper. However, Sean Thornton had the last word for the home side, adding a fifth in injury-time.

With any hopes of regaining top spot seemingly scuppered by the commanding early lead taken by Wigan at Brighton, Sunderland were soon made to realise that despite claiming just two points from their previous nine trips, Plymouth were not the push-overs their appalling away record suggested.

It took half an hour for either side to muster a meaningful effort on target, but Sunderland belatedly made up for the lack of goalmouth activity by taking a three-goal lead before the interval.

Dean Whitehead celebrated signed a contract extension until 2008 by breaking the deadlock with a powerful downward header from a Caldwell cross after recalled midfielder Julio Arca had instigated the move with a well-timed tackle outside the Plymouth area. Whitehead then returned the favour, driving in a low cross which Arca slid in from close range to double the lead on 40 minutes.

A flattering three-goal half-time advantage was achieved as Marcus Stewart scored his 15th goal of the season from a disputed penalty in first-half stoppage time, after Mark Cowburn's assistant had brought the referee's attention to an innocuous foul on the veteran striker by defender Graham Coughlan.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Myhre; Wright, Breen, Caldwell, McCartney; Whitehead (Thornton, h-t), Whitley (Lawrence, h-t), Robinson, Arca; Elliott, Stewart (Brown, 78). Substitutes not used: Ingham (gk), Bridges.

Plymouth Argyle (4-4-2): McCormick; Connolly, Coughlan, Aljofree, Gilbert; Norris, Wotton, Gudjonsson (Evans, 79), Capaldi; Chadwick, Blackstock (Taylor, 79). Substitutes not used: Worrell, Lasley, Doumbe.

Referee: M Cowburn (Lancashire).

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