Dons’ enigmatic season continued on Saturday as they hammered play-off hopefuls Tranmere Rovers 3-0 at stadium:mk.
In the reverse fixture, Dons played Rovers off the pitch at Prenton Park but left it late to net. This time, it took just nine minutes as Dean Lewington headed in after Dean Bowditch’s shot came back off the bar. Stephen Gleeson marked his first start since December making it 2-0 just before the break, and Darren Potter made it three, heading in five minutes after the restart.
Gleeson wasn’t the only one making his first start in a while as Patrick Bamford made his first start since November and started on the right flank.
A frantic opening saw both sides look dangerous going forward, though Dons were playing as though they were fully aware of their fate should they fail to get a result against Rovers.
Danny Harrison came closest to opening the scoring after seven minutes when he rattled a drive just wide of McLoughlin’s right-hand upright, but it was the home side who went straight up the other end and made the breakthrough. Dean Bowditch’s corner was cleared back to him in the left channel and he cut inside and shaped to shoot. Lifting the ball high, his shot clattered off the crossbar, but with Owain Fon Williams committed to the dive, Dean Lewington had a simple task of heading into the unguarded net.
Just like at Prenton Park earlier this season, it was looking like one-way traffic as Dons swept the ball around cleanly, restricting their opponents to long balls for Mamady Sidibe to chase. With Bamford coming narrow from his flank, it made for a packed centre, but some great one-touch football between him, Chris Lines and Dean Bowditch allowed space for Lowe to strike from the edge of the box, though his effort was blocked out for a corner.
The game raced towards the half-hour mark with the strong midfield battle winning over, but Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro tried something spectacular to get Rovers level - an overhead kick from the edge of the six yard box, but it was never troubling McLoughlin as it flew into the side netting.
As the game neared the half, it opened up and chances began to flow a bit more. Dean Bowditch could have done better when he broke the offside trap 10 minutes before the break, but his shot was fired in low and hard at Fon Williams who got down well to make the save. From the resultant corner, Lewington was furious at the officials for not awarding a penalty a push when the ball found it’s way to the back post. And Zoumana Bakayogo was inches away from meeting Akpa Akpro’s cross as he climbed above Antony Kay at the Dons far post.
Rovers would come agonisingly close again two minutes later when an unmarked Sidibe couldn’t connect with Liam Palmer’s cross. And the chance would come back to haunt them as Dons went straight up the other end and doubled the lead. Shaun Williams’ innocuous run in his own half saw him pick out Gleeson’s late break which went unnoticed by the Tranmere defence and he was left with the simple task of rolling the ball past Fon Williams for 2-0 just shy of the interval.
And it took just five minutes of the second half for two to become three as Dons made sure. In an almost carbon copy of the opener, Shaun Williams curled an effort onto the top of the bar, fully committing Fon Williams to the save. This time though, it was left to Darren Potter to head into the empty net putting Dons three goals to the good.
The home side had the upper hand in every aspect of the game. Defensively, they looked solid, with McLoughlin looking as comfortable as he ever has between the sticks in David Martin’s absence. In midfield, Potter and Gleeson were seeing a lot of the ball, while Bamford and Lowe were dragging the Rovers defence all over the shop as they looked for number four.
A blot to the book though came after 62 minutes when captain Dean Lewington, who picked up a knock in the first half, hobbled down the tunnel. He was replaced by Jon Otsemobor as Adam Chicksen switched flanks. George Baldock and Izale McLeod later replaced Bamford and Gleeson.
Tranmere barely showed and desire to get back into the game, but when they did, Bakayogo embarrassingly blazed over the top when McLoughlin was pulled out of position 10 minutes from the end. He was substituted almost immediately, though it was merely coincidence.
At the other end, Izale McLeod looked hungry to add to his goal tally with some good runs in behind the Tranmere defence and he almost completed the rout when a superb volley with six minutes remaining, but it went just over.
Lowe and Bowditch both had shots saved late on by Fon Williams, but the writing was on the wall for Tranmere who had been consummately out-played by their hosts.
Though their position in League 1 didn’t change as a result of their victory, the gap to the play-off spots is reduced to nine points now, with nine games to go.
Referee: Oliver Langford
Attendance: 9,682 (601)
MK Dons: McLoughlin, Lewington (Otsemobor 63), Chicksen, Antony Kay, Williams, Potter, Lines, Gleeson (McLeod 70), Bowditch, Lowe, Bamford (Baldock 70)
Subs not used: Doumbe, Smith
Tranmere Rovers: Fon Williams, Holmes, Black, Taylor, Palmer, Harrison (Bell-Baggie 62), Bakayogo (Stockton 81), Power, Gibson, Sidibe, Akpa Akpro
Subs not used: Mooney, Amoo, Michael Kay, O’Halloran, Corry
Booked: Kay, Chicksen