DONS moved two points clear in the race for fourth place as they cruised past Rochdale 2-1 at Spotland on Saturday.
Goals from Jay O’Shea and Dean Bowditch added another nail to already-relegated Rochdale’s coffin, though the home side did pull one back late in the day when Jean Louis Akpa Akpro hit a consolation.
And while Dons extended their winning streak to four games, play-off opponents Huddersfield Town could only manage a 1-1 draw with Walsall who almost certainly secured their League 1 future with the result.
Karl Robinson’s men now take on the Saddlers in the final game of the season at stadium:mk on Saturday and goal-scorer Bowditch says they won’t be taking their foot off the gas ahead of the play-offs.
“We want to go into the Walsall game flying and with confidence because we know they are massive games against Huddersfield,” he said.
“We know if we can win convincingly against Walsall, our confidence will be sky high, but we won’t be taking the game lightly.
“I don’t think that playing the second leg at home really matters from a player’s point of view – it’s just two games of football. We just have to go out there and do our best.
“It doesn’t matter if the home leg is first or second, I know people say it does. I don’t really care, we’ve got to go out and win both games.”
After securing a play-off place last Saturday against Sheffield United, boss Robinson made a host of changes in the line-up for already relegated Rochdale. Charlie MacDonald, Bowditch and goal-scorer Alan Smith all dropped to the bench, with Luke Chadwick, Jabo Ibehre and 16-year-old Brendon Galloway handed starts.
O’Shea replaced suspended Daniel Powell, and he struck the first blow less than three minutes in as he raced clear with Chadwick, and fired through Matt Edwards’ legs to put Dons into the lead.
The goal didn’t seem the phase Dale though as they played some promising football in midfield and kept possession well. They could have even been level four minutes after O’Shea’s opener when Joe Thompson’s cross was just out of reach for Akpa Akpro.
And Thompson should have levelled 10 minutes later when he capitalised on a loose pass in midfield, but his shot was straight at David Martin, who clutched it to his chest.
Despite having the better of the opening 20 minutes, Dale were nearly 2-0 down when Stephen Gleeson burst through the defence, only to see his shot saved by Edwards, moments before goal-scorer O’Shea cut inside to curl a left-footed effort onto the crossbar as the visitors began to get on top of the game.
Playing alongside Darren Potter, Galloway looked at home in the centre of the park in his first full appearance for the club, making some solid tackles and passes along the way.
Rochdale probably edged proceedings in the opening half, but despite cross after cross into the Dons’ box, Shaun Williams and Gary MacKenzie were proving a bridge too far for the home side, as the centre halves dominated in the 18 yard box.
At the other end, Ibehre was restricted to chasing long, hopeful balls forward and hold-up play in the centre circle as the visitors rarely threatened as they settled for their one goal advantage at the break.
The second half continued in a similar vein to the first, with neither side thriving in the final third, only carving out half chances.
MacKenzie nearly doubled the lead five minutes after the restart when he found himself on the edge of the box with the ball at his feet but his strike was straight at Edwards, while Michael Symes’ header at the other end was a routine catch for Martin.
In a bid to inject some flair into the game, Robinson withdrew the impressive Galloway for top-scorer Bowditch, and it turned out to be an inspired move as on the hour, O’Shea raced onto Ibehre’s back heel before he slid in Bowditch to control and fire in with only his second touch of the game.
Gleeson, who dropped back alongside Potter to accommodate Bowditch, then unleashed a fierce strike on the edge of the box which Edwards had to watch all the way into his gloves as Dons assumed control of the game
David Martin needed to be on his toes though with 20 minutes to when substitute Simon Hackney tried a low swerving effort. And his clean-sheet looked certain to be wrecked when Akpa Akpro was unmarked at the far post with an empty net to aim at, but incredibly hit the side netting. Dale had the wind in their sails with the two chances and fancied their chance from range as Kevin Amankwaah rifled in a shot from 35 yards, straight down Martin’s throat.
In truth it was a comfortable affair late in the game for Dons as they passed the ball around with ease, hardly troubled by Rochdale. A combination of O’Shea, MacDonald, Chadwick and Ibehre saw the latter have a good effort saved by Edwards with 10 minutes to go.
But Dale gave themselves a lifeline with five minutes remaining when Akpa Akpro made up for his earlier miss, neatly spinning six yards out to curl the ball into the top corner of Martin’s net.
It led to some nervy moments in the dying stages, but the best chances fell to Bowditch and Williams, who both put shots narrowly wide in stoppage time.
The game certainly won’t go down as a classic though was enough to extend Dons’ unbeaten run on the road to seven games. And manager Robinson admitted he found himself getting bored on the touchline.
“I didn’t really enjoy it. It seemed to drag a bit, the game, it wasn’t a thrilling match to get your teeth into.
“I don’t think we got out of second gear really. That was us playing within ourselves.
“You’ve got to feel for Rochdale because they got relegated last week so it was tough for them to bounce back and put in a performance.
“Spotland hasn’t really been a happy hunting ground for us in the past, but with the 4-1 win last year and this win, it’s turning into a nice place! The pitch was fantastic too.
“I didn’t want Gleeson and Potter to play 90 minutes. Brendan Galloway has only just turned 16. He’s a tremendous talent, breaking forward, nutmegging people, but he didn’t give the ball away once. And our starting back four kept another clean sheet – Rochdale only scored when we made changes. David Martin is fuming in there, and I can understand why.
“Dean Bowditch made an impact when he came on, so did Charlie MacDonald.”
Dean Bowditch’s strike was his 15th of the campaign, equalling his total from last season where he was the main striker at Yeovil.
And despite playing out wide for Dons, he was delighted to reach his pre-season target with games to spare.
“I’ve played in a different position this season, cutting in from the left, and that has sometimes meant sacrificing goals to create them,” he said.
“But to get the same number of goals that I did last year playing as the main striker was the target I set myself at the beginning of the year. There’s still time to get one or two more too!”
Dons now unbeaten in five and have conceded just twice in the all-important run in, while Huddersfield’s stuttering form continues under boss Simon Grayson, picking up just one win in the same period.
But while it may hand Dons a slight advantage in the play-offs, Bowditch isn’t getting too confident just yet.
He said: “It might frighten them a bit, the fact that their form has dipped and we’re flying. It’s going to be difficult for both teams because the play-offs are completely different and you throw all form out of the window.”
Dons round out their League 1 season on Saturday at home against Walsall, and Robinson isn’t expected to name a weakened side, despite knowing a point should cement them in fourth place.
He said: “Next week, I want to play as strong a team that I can. I want to lead into the play-offs with a bit of momentum and start working on things we can do against Huddersfield.
“We’ve toppled last year’s points total, we’ve scored two more goals to the ever growing tally too, it’s just a shame we couldn’t get the clean sheet.”