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Dons defeat ends automatic promotion dream

Jason Puncheon (left)

By Oli
April 25 2009

A solitary Jabo Ibehre goal was enough to send Walsall back to Birmingham with three points and, coupled with Peterborough United's 1-0 win in Colchester, send the Dons into the League One playoffs. With a couple of very comfortable wins coming against Brighton & Hove Albion and Bristol Rovers at stadium:mk in recent weeks, there was just a feeling of complacency amongst the Dons players and they paid for their lack of ideas and energy as Ibehre, who was a real handful throughout, ended the Dons' hopes of automatic promotion with a low drive from outside the box in the second half.

Dons manager Roberto Di Matteo made two changes to the side that had beaten Scunthorpe United 1-0 at Glanford Park the previous weekend. Both Luke Chadwick and Ali Gerba had sat out training on Thursday, presumably for fitness-related issues, but both were expected to be ready to start. Neither were, as Chadwick dropped to the bench and Gerba out of the squad entirely. Sam Baldock returned to the attack, with Jason Puncheon switching from attack to the left wing, while Tore Andre Flo made his first Dons start as a surprise partner for Baldock. Aaron Wilbraham and Peter Leven returned to the bench after injury but Jemal Johnson remained out of the squad and seemingly in the wilderness as his contract talks continue to stall.

It was Flo in particular who looked a threat in the early stages, showing some nice touches and proving his flick-ons could be a threat with Baldock snapping at the heels of the Walsall defenders. Unfortunately he was to fade out of the game rather quickly and really only gave the Dons an excuse to play a poor brand of football aimed at his head, with high balls more and more easily gobbled up by Anthony Gerrard and Emmanuele Smith in the Saddlers defence as the game went on.

If Dons fans were hoping Walsall might be a little lax defensively with nothing left to play for it was clear quickly that that would not be the case, with the away side playing a very disciplined, hardworking, but also adventurous game. Left winger Sofiane Zaaboub was a constant threat while the height of the likes of Dwayne Mattis made the Dons' disappointing football not only uninventive but ineffective. Ibehre lead the line superbly, not only troubling Miguel Llera and Sean O'Hanlon with his strength and physique but also showing glimpses of genuine ability.

Chances were few and far between but Mark Wright, playing against his old club, made a typical darting run into the box from the wing and nearly beat Walsall 'keeper Clayton Ince to Flo's moving volley on 18 minutes, the Trinidad and Tobago international just snatching it away. No one doubts Wright's ability to get himself in good positions and score some crucial goals but his general performance was again very disappointing, and he must be a man very concerned about his chances of a contract renewal to a deal that expires at the end of the season.

A large problem for the Dons was clearly the very close marking of Puncheon, the man who so often provides a spark when it's most needed, and he switched flanks with Wright even earlier than normal in an attempt to find some space. Ibehre had his first effort towards Willy Gueret's goal on 26 minutes, shooting narrowly wide from distance. It was a warning about the accuracy and power of his long distance efforts that the Dons defenders failed to note.

Dons were forced to withdraw O'Hanlon on the half hour mark after he picked up a knock that didn't look too serious but was clearly troubling the centre-back. Having been our most consistent centre-back this season, Dons fans will hope his substitution was purely precautionary with third place still to fight for and the playoffs looming. Jude Stirling was introduced as his replacement, a change Di Matteo was probably not hoping to make as it meant that one of Leven, Wilbraham and Chadwick would have to remain on the bench with the Dons limited to three subs.

Dons' only half-chances before the break were a Puncheon free-kick that was deflected off-target and a ball into the box aimed at Flo by the same player that was cut out. It really was that turgid.

The second half was to be more urgent and dynamic from the Dons, but for all the wrong reasons.

It didn't start brilliantly, with Baldock's free-kick well placed but taken from too far out to trouble Ince. Wilbraham was introduced for Flo in an attempt to add some extra impetus to the Dons attack, and Walsall brought on Alex Nicholls in place of Mark Bradley just before the hour mark. 

On 61 minutes the Saddlers got the breakthrough courtesy of Ibehre. The striker hadn't featured in the reverse fixture, with the Dons running out comfortable 3-0 winners on that occasion, and Walsall looked a totally different proposition with him leading their attack. He reeled in another high ball aimed in his direction, before turning Stirling and firing low into Gueret's right corner from 20 yards.

The Dons finally woke-up, but it was to be too little, too late, partially thanks to the superb form of Ince in between the posts. Baldock and Puncheon had efforts kept out by the 'keeper shortly after Ibehre's opener. The striker was substituted shortly later after picking up a knock, Richard Taundry coming on, while Dons opted for Leven over Chadwick, with the Scot replacing Luke Howell.

Puncheon finally began to find some space on the left and whipped in a couple of outstanding crosses, the ball just dropping behind Wilbraham on the first, with the striker struggling to find any power on his header. Even better was a second a few minutes later as the ball bounced agonisingly in front of Baldock, the youngster unable to convert. Wright was denied by Ince after diverting another Puncheon cross towards goal.

With Walsall fighting to keep the clean sheet the Dons were presented with a couple of good set-piece opportunities. Llera was the unlikely candidate to hit one from distance, and his low effort wasn't a hopeless one at all, but was blocked by a Walsall leg. The ball fell to Leven, who had stood over the free-kick, and his cracking drive was brilliantly pushed away by Ince at full stretch.

Leven and Puncheon were denied by the 'keeper before Baldock had a go from a free-kick, but was again frustrated by the inspired Ince.

Llera was thrown up front in the final minutes as the Dons desperately attempted to halt Peterborough's promotion party at Colchester, but they couldn't find the breakthrough and the game ended on a sour note when Stephen Gleeson suffered what looked like a bad injury after being fouled from behind by Troy Deeney. The Irishman was stretchered off and looks unlikely to feature again this season, a blow to the Dons' promotion hopes after the midfielder's impressive start.

So, Posh are promoted and few could argue they don't deserve second spot; but now the Dons' season rests on how they react. The playoffs beckon, and securing third place to avoid Millwall or Leeds in the semi-final is still yet to be secured, though the Dons remain in the driving seat with their game in hand this Tuesday at Northampton Town. The Dons will have to face one of the aforementioned teams, however, if not in the semis then in the final, and a massive, massive performance (three, in fact) is going to be needed to lift ourselves into the Championship.

Obviously, each Dons player will now know that Peterborough, the side we have competed alongside for the last two years, will be playing Championship football next season. They have earned it, they have been better than us, and that will hurt. But then the realisation will dawn upon each one of these Dons players, if it hasn't already, that they require a draw followed by two wins in the playoffs to join them. To feel the elation that they will be enjoying tonight, but only we have the opportunity do it in the most magnificent stadium this country has to offer, in front of what probably will be 30-40,000 fans of the Dons and citizens of the town. The season is far from finished.

Dons: Gueret 6; Regan 5, O'Hanlon 6 (Stirling 30, 5), Llera 6, Lewington 6; Wright 5, Howell 6 (Leven 73, 7), Gleeson 7, Puncheon 6; Flo 5 (Wilbraham 57, 7), Baldock 7.

Unused subs: Abbey, Chadwick.

Booked: Regan.

Walsall: Ince; Weston, Smith, Gerrard, Palmer; Bradley (Nicholls 59), Hughes (Davies 83), Mattis, Zaaboub; Ibehre (Taundry 70), Deeney.

Unused subs: Gilmartin, Boertien.

Booked: Zaaboub, Mattis, Gerrard.

Goals: Ibehre 61.

Attendance: 12,094.

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Dons defeat ends automatic promotion dream
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