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This time Dons columnist Dominic Damesick says Dons deserved the small slice of luck they needed to beat Sheffield United.
League 1 is shaping up to be a very strange, unpredictable division this year. Tranmere are still the major surprise package, sitting five points clear at the top of the pile, and they should provide a stern test for Dons this Friday.
Below them, only three points separate second and seventh, in a division where most sides have struggled to compile a consistent run of results, and the old saying that ‘anyone can beat anyone’ has borne fruit once again.
Dons’ last two home games matched them against sides with starkly contrasting recent fortunes. Leyton Orient have struggled so far this season, and look to be facing another battle against relegation; whilst, in contrast, Saturday’s opponents Sheffield United are one of the likely contenders for the title, and came to Milton Keynes protecting an undefeated record in the league.
Both sides looked, to be frank, ordinary during their respective visits, and Dons should have walked away from both fixtures with more comfortable victories. Instead, Orient nearly snatched a late draw, and United almost held out for a goalless deadlock. Still, six points were ultimately registered, and Dons have closed the gap between themselves and the second automatic promotion spot to a mere three points.
Sheffield United, somewhat typically of a Danny Wilson side, were cautious and (to be brutally honest) fairly dull against Dons on Saturday. Perhaps preserving their unbeaten run was the primary aim for the visitors as they showed little attacking intent, refusing to commit many men to attack, and instead seeming content to try and contain Dons’ possession football. Their plan nearly backfired – Dons were dominant, especially in the first half, and should not have taken 89 minutes to break the deadlock.
There were few indications as to why United have the best defensive record in the league – although their backline was very strong aerially – as they were clumsy in the tackle, always looked susceptible down the wings, and were frequently sloppy in possession in dangerous areas.
Yet, Dons hindered their own chances by being consistently wasteful from good positions, as time and again the final ball into the box disappointed, either sailing over everybody’s heads or failing to beat the first defender.
This was particularly frustrating as Dean Bowditch, Angelo Balanta and Jon Otsemobor all had the beating of the United full-backs, meaning the only obstacle in their capability to provide chances on a plate – for Ryan Lowe et al – was the quality of their delivery.
Perhaps it was just an off-day for United on Saturday – I cannot imagine Saturday’s performance is the norm for them given that they sit second in the table – but this simply made it all the more crucial that Dons took advantage of such a subpar showing from a side that could potentially be a promotion rival.
It would certainly have been a case of two points dropped, rather than a point gained, if Dons had failed to win the game, given the home side’s overall dominance, and the visitors’ distinctly average performance. Yet, Dons so nearly wasted a golden opportunity.
Karl Robinson, having brought on Alan Smith early in the second half to try and add some physical presence to his front-line, then stalled on making any further substitutions, and the game fell into a stalemate. Luke Chadwick looked dead on his feet in the latter stages and Bowditch began to struggle to beat his marker as fatigue took its toll. The game was screaming out for an injection of fresh legs, to return some vitality and urgency to Dons’ play, but neither new signing Ibra Sekajja, Adam Chicksen or Jay O’Shea were called upon.
I’ve been quick to praise Robinson, and defend him when he has faced undue criticism, but I would be tempted to say that he was let off the hook on Saturday. A victory against a potential promotion rival was there for the taking, yet Robinson’s tactical inactivity almost allowed the three points to slip agonisingly away, before a needless United tackle and the ice-cool nerve of Shaun Williams – sandwiching a slightly generous refereeing decision – intervened to ensure that Dons clinched the win.
I should clarify my point: I do not think Dons were undeserving of their hard-fought success, and I commend Robinson on keeping faith with a system that so many (myself included) have questioned in recent weeks.
However, from the 70 minute mark onwards on Saturday the three points were clearly beginning to escape Dons’ clutches, as the effects of two games in four days began to bite, and Robinson’s hesitation could so easily have meant another instance of Dons drawing a game they were capable, and deserving, of winning. For once though, Dons had a little bit of good fortune, and took the three points that, not only Saturday’s performance, but their efforts over the season so far have merited.
I hope I have not been too harsh on Robinson and his team in the face of their impressive victory. Indeed, it could be seen as a compliment. Dons have just ended Sheffield United’s unbeaten start to the season, and registered their third league win on the bounce, and I do not believe they are yet playing to their full potential. See, this side really does have promotion potential!
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