April 29 2009
Aaron Wilbraham's well-taken first half goal was enough to hand the Dons three points in a tight encounter with Northampton Town. Despite a second half onslaught the Cobblers had very few real chances and Dons might have won by a more comfortable margin. As expected vice-captain and recently voted member of the League One Team of the Year Sean O'Hanlon missed out with a knee injury picked up in the 0-1 defeat to Walsall the previous Saturday, so Jude Stirling lined up alongside Miguel Llera at the heart of the Dons defence. Stephen Gleeson's nasty looking injury in the same match meant that Peter Leven returned to midfield, while Alan Navarro was preferred to Luke Howell alongside the Scot. A final fourth change saw Aaron Wilbraham replace Tore Andre Flo in attack, and he lined up alongside Sam Baldock in a 4-4-2 formation.
It was always a tense affair but an exciting one all the same, with the Dons having the better of the first half. Aleksandar Prjiovic, who had only about a week earlier turned 19, led the line on his own for the Cobblers and struggled against the physicality of Llera and Stirling, thought to be fair he didn't recieve a great deal of support. Ikechi Anya looked dangerous on the right-wing however and Luke Guttridge made some good runs into the Dons box.
The first real chance fell to the visitors after 14 minutes. Llera fired a superb ball from the left side of the Dons half across to Puncheon on the right wing, and the on-loan Plymouth winger drove inside, shooting at Chris Dunn from 20 yards. The shot flew awkwardly and the 'keeper could only block into the path of Baldock, who couldn't quite twist his body to tap in and knocked the ball wide from a few yards out.
Liam Dolman and Stirling were measuring the length of their throw-ins against each other, with the former seeing one flicked on by Andy Holt only for it to run across the Dons' six yard box, before Jude put one in at the opposite end that was flicked back to Mark Wright, his volley cleared off the line by Jason Crowe.
As expected Puncheon was being tightly marked but the winger was still creating chances, only being denied the opening goal by a block from Mark Hughes after his shot had deflected off Dolman.
And it was Puncheon who was the architect of the opening goal. Having switched back to the left flank, the winger skipped past the big but not particularly pacy Dolman before firing the ball across the penalty area, where Wilbraham was on hand to superbly sweep home across goal with his left foot.
Dons followed that up with Wright going close from a Wilbraham cross, but Northampton should have equalised on 43 minutes. Dolman put another throw into the box and Anya touched it into the path of the onrushing Guttridge, who blazed over the crossbar from no more than six yards.
The Cobblers might have paid for that miss just before the break but an inexplicable decision from referee Keith Stroud denied the Dons a penalty. Baldock raced down the left, doing well to set up Leven in the box. The midfielder was totally flattened by a flying tackle from Jason Crowe but to the disbelief of the Dons support, who could see it from the other end of the pitch, the referee waved play on.
A good opening 45 minutes from the Dons but the second half was to be a more testing affair defensively. It was an exam the Dons back four, for the most part, passed with flying colours.
Northampton introduced Adebayo Akinfenwa, probably only half-fit but still a threat, at the break, with Ryan Gilligan making way. He joined Prijovic in attack as the Cobblers switched to a 4-4-2.
Despite this more attacking outlook from the home side the Dons could have doubled their lead early in the second half. Wilbraham released Wright down the right hand side and the winger crossed low for the arriving Baldock, but his shot from ten yards was weak and Dunn got down well to save.
It was clearly going to be a more counter-attacking job with Northampton sending players forward, and Baldock was working the channels well, shortly after being denied by Dunn racing down the left before seeing his low cross cut out at the near post, with Wilbraham lurking.
Roberto Di Matteo said after the match that his side could have won by more than a goal, and again it was questionable refereeing that denied them a more comfortable win. After that blatant first half penalty appeal was turned down the Dons can again feel hard done by after they had a goal disallowed for offside. Puncheon swung a free-kick in from the right and the ball evaded everyone before nestling in Dunn's far corner, but the linesman's flag was up. Wilbraham was lurking and may have been offside but didn't interfere with a defender, the ball, or the goalkeeper's line of vision, while Llera rose high but having been sat in the front row directly behind the goal, I can confirm he most definitely did not touch it.
Dons introduced Luke Chadwick for Wright while Leon Constantine joined Akinfenwa up front for the Cobblers, with Prijovic withdrawn.
Akinfenwa and Anya were threatening for Northampton but Willy Gueret remained untested in the Dons goal. At the other end Puncheon broke down the left, driving across Dunn who got down well to save, but a pass across goal might have been a better option.
Shaun Cummings was brought on for Baldock, the Chelsea youngster playing on the right while Chadwick shifted into the centre. Northampton then introduced former Dons loanee Adam Watts, with the tall centre-back going up front as the Cobblers switched to a 3-4-3. And Watts was guilty of missing a good chance on 87 minutes, heading wide from a corner in a good position.
It didn't end there as Chadwick was called upon to clear off the line from an Anya effort after Gueret had punched away a corner, but Dons held on to clinch a valuable three points as they look to finish the season in third place, and avoid Millwall and Leeds United until a possible playoff final. Di Matteo's side need just a point away at Hereford United on Saturday to secure that, and in decent form, the Dons will go into the playoffs in good spirits.
Northampton: Dunn; Dolman, Hughes (Watts 81), Crowe, Jackman; Anya, Osman, Guttridge, Gilligan (Akinfenwa 46), Holt; Prijovic (Constantine 68).
Unused subs: Walker, Hodgkiss.
Booked: Holt, Watts.
Dons: Gueret 6; Regan 7, Stirling 8, Llera 8, Lewington 7; Wright 6 (Chadwick 65, 6), Navarro 6, Leven 6, Puncheon 7; Wilbraham 7, Baldock 6 (Cummings 82).
Unused subs: Abbey, Howell, Flo.
Booked: Stirling, Navarro.
Goals: Wilbraham 34.