THE season has been made up of big games, and this Saturday’s clash with Doncaster Rovers will be yet another as Dons prepare to mount their most serious League 1 title challenge yet.
If the last 10 games have taught us anything, it’s that Dons can win in a variety of different ways. Games against Colchester and Cambridge showed that, when Dons hit a high gear, they can score goals in abundance – winning 5-1 and 6-1 respectively on those occasions.
And their 3-0 win at Scunthorpe showed they can put a team to the sword away from home too, ruthlessly punishing a group low on morale.
Wins against Sheffield United and Tranmere saw Dons battle it out with their promotion rivals and ultimately prevail. At Prenton Park in particular, Dons showed great persistence in battering down the door in front of them for the entire second half.
And while recent soirees onto the television haven’t always brought big wins, Dons’ FA Cup second round victory over AFC Wimbledon showed they’re not afraid of the limelight, or the big occasion.
The results picked up against Leyton Orient, and most recently at home to Hartlepool on Saturday, saw Karl Robinson’s men prove they can win comfortably, without the scoreline necessarily reflecting that.
There were plenty of chances that went begging at stadium;mk, which made for a slightly uncomfortable last 20 minutes or so, but it was nothing the players couldn’t handle.
Hartlepool, down on their luck and almost resigned to relegation already, had nothing to lose as they finally got possession of the ball – but hardly made David Martin work for his wages.
Ryan Lowe’s good scoring streak improved to three goals in his last four games, but he could have added two or three more to his name had he been an inch or two taller as he just missed out on hammering home one of Dean Bowditch’s countless balls into the box.
Angelo Balanta’s re-appearance on loan from QPR seems to have coincided with Dons’ return to form, and he should have added his name to the scoresheet, but is yet to do so in his fourth spell at the club, despite looking as impressive as ever.
Robinson admitted afterwards that he shared the frustration of the fans by the narrow scoreline, even if the performance suggested the margin should have been bigger.
Ultimately, it is performances and, more importantly, victories such as these that will see a side further up the table than the headline stealing successes over their closest competitors.
And Dons will need to call on all of their abilities to win games over the Christmas period as they begin to mount a serious challenge for the League 1 title.
With four games in quick succession over the Christmas and New Year period, they will face teams with differing fortunes. Saturday’s opponents Doncaster are flying at the moment, although they fell victim to a resurgent Coventry City last time out.
Dons then play the financially uncertain Sky Blues on Saturday December 29, sandwiching a home game against lowly Walsall, who are hovering dangerously close to the relegation zone after their excellent start to the season fizzled out.
And an away trip to Notts County, which falls on New Year’s Day, is never an easy task, regardless of their form or league position.
On paper, Dons could well look at the League 1 table on January 2, 2013, and see their name at the top of the list. Each game they face over Christmas is winnable, though if they were to come through it unbeaten with at least two victories, they’d be distinctly satisfied with their work during the infamous festive period.
In terms of their promotion rivals, Tranmere are predictably beginning to stutter after their lightning start, with pre-season favourites Sheffield United hardly taking the division by storm, as was predicted back in June.
Doncaster and Brentford are somewhat the surprise packages this season, finding themselves well in the mix, while Stevenage are showing the same grit which catapulted them into the play-offs last season.
No one can be ruled out of the running just yet. Even Coventry, who are seven points outside the play-offs in 13th place, are capable of beating anyone – as seen last Saturday at the Keepmoat Stadium, and could yet begin a charge towards the top end.
But now could be the perfect time for Dons to make their mark on the season by mounting a title challenge the likes of which the club enjoyed back in 2008.
It’s fair to say consistency will be key in 2013. With teams knitted so tightly together at the midway stage, it’s hard to imagine that anyone will break away from the pack by any significant margin.
And when the winter weather inevitably forces games to be called off up and down the division – and when the games in hand begin to mount up – the best thing Dons can do is keep their heads down and do whatever it takes to win.
Dons look well postponed for a serious title push next year, but that will only be possible if they can pick up some vitally important victories over Christmas.