A FIRST half horror-show from the MK Dons defence gifted Walsall a 4-2 victory at stadium:mk on Boxing Day.
The opening 45 minutes, which saw five goals, was unorthodox in that it wasn’t especially exciting. Ryan Lowe opened the scoring for Dons with a strong header after five minutes, but Febian Brandy equalised on the 15 minute mark for the visitors. Will Grigg made it 2-1 to Walsall after some shambolic defensive work, before Dean Bowditch levelled things up again. But Grigg would get his second, capitalising on the indecisive home defence again just before the break to put Walsall 3-2 to the good at half-time. Despite all their pressure in the second half, Dons simply couldn’t find an opening. Twice hitting the woodwork, they went down to 10 men for the final 10 minutes when Patrick Bamford hobbled off, and Jamie Paterson’s cross dipped in in stoppage time to complete the defeat for the home side.
Without the influence of Stephen Gleeson and Luke Chadwick for the next eight or so weeks, Karl Robinson opted to shift the versatile Shaun Williams into the centre of midfield, and Angelo Balanta filled in the hole behind Ryan Lowe. Mathias Doumbe started at the heart of the defence alongside Antony Kay, with Adam Chicksen in at right back.
Despite all the enforced chopping and changing, it was business as usual from form man Lowe as he almost put the home side ahead after just 18 seconds when a lash up field looped into his path in behind the Walsall defence. But the ball skidded just too far for him, safely into the hands of Aaron McCarey in the Saddlers net.
But it only took another five minutes before Lowe did put himself on the score sheet, leaping highest to head home Adam Chicksen’s cross for his fourth goal in five appearances.
But just as it looked as though Dons were getting comfortable, Walsall scored with their first attack after 15 minutes. Picking the ball up on the edge of the box after a powerful run from Craig Westcarr, Febian Brandy showed quick feet in the area to evade two half-challenges from Lewington and Doumbe, before he rifled the ball into the roof of the net from six yards. David Martin was left with no chance.
Defensively, Dons looked all over the place in the first half. Kay and Doumbe seemed to be unsure of each other and unable to keep tabs on the floating Westcarr and Will Grigg. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when, after a decent period of pressure, Walsall took the lead. A long ball up to Grigg saw the striker twist and turn in front of Doumbe, sending the defender sprawling to the ground, before he picked his spot from the edge of the box, bending it around Martin’s out-stretched hand to make it 2-1 with 25 minutes played.
Kay went close to equalising less than 60 seconds later when he unleashed a powerful effort on goal which looked for all the world to be nestling in the top corner, but McCarey’s dive allowed him to palm it around the post.
They were level on the half hour mark though, when Lowe controlled Balanta’s cross and unselfishly laid off to Bowditch on the edge of the box to bend one through a crowd of players, this time just out of reach of McCarey’s dive and into the bottom corner.
The goals didn’t stop though, when shortly before the half-time break Dons’ defence went to sleep again, allowing Westcarr to turn in the box and play a simple ball across the face of goal for Grigg to tap home his second and Walsall’s third of the half.
While Dons had all of the ball, it was in fact Walsall who looked the more dangerous going forward, as was reflected in the scoreline. Whether that was down to their clinical finishing, having netted three times from their only three attacks, or Dons fragile-looking defence is down to interpretation. Either way, there was little action to speak of, goals aside, in the opening 45 minutes.
With Balanta fair ineffective in the hole behind Lowe, Robinson threw Patrick Bamford into the mix at the break, but it was Dean Lewington who’d go closest to levelling things up. From another Bowditch corner, the skipper had a clear header, but couldn’t quite direct it on target, with half the ground thinking it had gone in.
It was fairly one-way traffic for long periods in the second half, though Walsall would continue to look dangerous on the counter. Bamford came agonisingly close to Lowe’s clever cross, before seeing another shot two minutes later deflected and onto the post. From the resultant corner, the woodwork saved Walsall again as Kay headed against the upright but Lowe couldn’t convert the follow-up.
The woodwork would save the day again, this time at the other end when Grigg, with half an eye on his hat-trick, sent his free header crashing against the bar – a goal which surely would have wrapped up the match for the Saddlers.
Bamford’s impact on the game would come to an unfortunate end with 10 minutes to go. After a tactically brilliant but physically powerful challenge from Andy Butler, the teenager was left holding his previously injured hamstring but bravely hobbled on. But two minutes later, he collapsed to the ground again, holding the back of his leg. Having made all three changes, Dons were left to play out the game with 10 men.
And Walsall made their advantage count in stoppage time when Jamie Paterson’s cross swerved into the far corner in stoppage time to polish off a disappointing afternoon for Robinson’s men.
The result means Dons stay sixth, now seven points behind the leaders but with a game in hand.
Referee: Steven Atwell
MK Dons: Martin, Lewington, Doumbe (Smith, 73), Kay, Chicksen, Williams, Potter, Bowditch, Powell (Ismail, 58), Balanta (Bamford, 46), Lowe
Subs not used: McLoughlin, MacDonald, Alli, Sekajja
Walsall: McCarey, Butler, Chanbers, Grigg, Paterson, Brandy, Purkiss, Downing, Taylor, Mantom, Westcarr (Cuvelier, 71)
Subs not used: Grof, Holden, Hemmings, Bowerman, Benning, Baxendale
Booked: Potter, Brandy, Butler, Smith, Ismail