DONS edged their way to securing fourth place in League 1 with a solid 2-1 win over Rochdale at Spotland on Saturday.
Jay O’Shea opened the scoring inside three minutes, firing home after Luke Chadwick’s mazing run. The visitors looked comfortable without troubling Dale keeper Matt Edwards, but O’Shea nearly doubled the lead but saw his shot come off the bar. Substitute Dean Bowditch doubled the lead on the hour with only his second touch as Dons breezed through the half. But Jean Louis Akpa Akpro reduced the deficit with five minutes to go, but it was nothing more than a consolation. Walsall’s draw with Huddersfield means Dons need just a point to wrap up fourth place.
After securing a play-off place last Saturday against Sheffield United, Karl Robinson made a host of changes in the line-up for already relegated Rochdale. Charlie MacDonald, Dean Bowditch and goal-scorer Alan Smith all dropped to the bench, with Luke Chadwick, Jabo Ibehre and 16-year-old Brendon Galloway handed starts.
Jay O’Shea replaced suspended Daniel Powell, and he struck the first blow less than three minutes in as he raced clear with Luke 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 the 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 Jean-Louis 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, Brendan 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, Jabo 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 half chances. Gary 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 Dean 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.
And with Huddersfield drawing away at Walsall, Dons move clear in fourth place and need just a point against the Saddlers at stadium:mk next week to ensure the vital second ;play-off leg at home.
Referee: M Brown
Rochdale: Edwards, Darby, Widdowson, Amankwaah, Kennedy, Jones, Symes (Adams, 80), Long, Thompson (Gray, 63), Tutte (Hackney, 63), Aka Akpro
Subs not used: Lucas, Holden
MK Dons: Martin, Lewington, MacKenzie, Chicksen, Williams, Potter (MacDonald, 68), Galloway (Bowditch, 57), Gleeson (Flanagan, 73) O’Shea, Chadwick, Ibehre
Subs not used: McLoughlin, Smith