Dons will take a slender lead to London Road on Thursday night after a quite incredible League One play-off semi-final first leg at stadium:mk today (Sunday).
Second half goals from Daniel Powell, Sam Baldock and Angelo Balanta gave Dons a 3-2 win, but that doesn’t begin to tell the story in what was a sensational game of football. It quite literally had everything.
Karl Robinson’s men fell behind to an eighth minute Craig Mackail-Smith goal, but hit back in spectacular fashion after the break to lead 3-1, with Posh also reduced to 10 men after the sending off of Charlie Lee. But the visitors fought back and pulled one back through a late Grant McCann penalty which also saw Stephen Gleeson see red.
The game always had the potential to be a classic, but few could have predicted just how exciting and nerve-shredding it would actually be. And we’ll go through it all again in four days.
As expected, Adam Clayton was chosen to replace the injured Peter Leven in the centre of midfield as Robinson made eight changes to the team that beat Oldham Athletic on the final day of the regular season.
Starting at a frantic pace, both sides looked to strike an blow early in the game. While Posh’s early attempts were thwarted by Gary MacKenzie and Sean O’Hanlon, Dons fared slightly better with Baldock and Powell combining for the latter to close in on goal. However, keeper Joe Lewis was wise to Powell’s run and threw himself at his feet, injuring himself and Lee in the process.
But with their first real attack on goal, it was the visitors who took the lead in the eighth minute. Mark Little collected a quick free-kick down the right flank, and cut back inside to cross to Nathaniel Mendez-Liang to shoot. But David Martin could only parry his shot into the path of hitman Mackail-Smith who had the simple task of tapping into an empty net. Despite calls of offside from Dons’ defence, League One’s top scorer was well on and Posh had a dream start.
Peterborough kept up the pressure as they went in search of a second - playing with a high line and enjoying the lion’s share of possession. Mackail-Smith rifled over another shot from the edge of the area, and Tomlin saw a well struck effort saved by Martin.
Dons rode the tide and began to turn the screw as they went searching for the equaliser. But as is so often the case at stadium:mk, the attractive football lasted until the edge of the penalty box, as without a target in the area, most of Dons’ crosses were gobbled up by Lewis in the Peterborough goal.
But the best chance for Dons to get back on level terms came after 26 minutes. With Mathias Doumbe flying down the right flank, he skipped past Mark Little and whipped a dangerous low ball across the face of goal where the sliding Baldock was just inches away from converting at the near post.
Posh were forced into an early substitution at the centre of defence, with Gabriel Zakuani picking up a knock and being replaced by Kelvin Langmead with half an hour played.
With both sides playing quick attacking football, there was hardly any midfield action as the game was mostly played on the edge of each penalty box. Dons have been criticised in the past for lacking a killer instinct, and it showed again when Baldock found Doumbe unmarked on the right flank - the defender shaped to shoot, but instead chose to lay the ball off to Clayton rather than taking the effort on himself.
Dons’ best chance of the game came from a Dean Lewington corner five minutes from the interval, when they really put the pressure on. O’Hanlon leapt highest in the crowd of bodies and forced Lewis into an acrobatic finger-tip save to keep Dons at bay.
Doumbe again had a great chance to shoot two minutes later, but twice delayed his effort and allowed Posh to get bodies back, although his eventual effort was blocked by McCann for a corner. The result of which saw Baldock’s sliding effort deflected onto the crossbar as the home side threw everything but the kitchen sink at Peterborough. However, they couldn’t make that vital breakthrough before the break.
The second half was a different story though as Dons made their chances count and took control of the tie.
Posh were forced into their second forced substitution at the break as keeper Lewis was unable to shake off the injury he picked up in the opening minutes, replaced by Paul Jones who was in for a baptism of fire as Dons immediately pounced to equalise.
Lewington’s cross from the left caused all sorts of problems and Powell was on hand to bundle the ball over the line, despite Kelvin Langmead’s best efforts to keep it out.
And incredibly just a minute later Dons were in front. A silly foul from McCann in the middle of the park on Luke Chadwick allowed Baldock a sight at goal. From 30 yards out, the Dons striker fired his free-kick low and it evaded the jumping wall to nestle into Jones’ bottom corner, putting Dons 2-1 up within three minutes of the restart.
With the crowd rocking at both ends, Dons surged forward in search of a third, and it came in the 56th minute. Balanta skipped past two challenges in the penalty area before getting tackled, although the ball fell to Chadwick on the edge of the box. His neat through ball got Balanta back in, and cutting back inside he fired a low right-footed strike which beat Jones at the near post. Dons, remarkably, 3-1 up just 11 minutes into the second half.
And they continued to play at a incredible pace, flowing forward rapidly with Baldock, Powell, Balanta and Chadwick causing all sorts of problems fora shell-struck Posh. But the away side weren’t out of it yet and they nearly scrambled one back on the hour mark. A deep corner from the right had Martin scrambling to punch clear, before clattering into O’Hanlon as he attempted to clear for a second time. This allowed for a number of scrambled efforts for Posh, but it was eventually fired into the side netting by George Boyd.
And Posh were handed another blow in the 66th minute when Lee - who had earlier been booked for a foul on Powell - was one again caught short and picked up his second booking and marching orders as Peterborough went down to 10 men for the last 25 minutes.
Dons continued to search for a fourth goal, and Baldock so nearly found it when he collected Chadwick’s pass in the area and neatly turned, but his effort just missed the left upright, with Jones well beaten.
While Dons’ attackers were earning the headlines, Gleeson and Clayton in the middle of the park were working just as hard, putting in some strong tackles and showing great vision to set the wingers free. But Posh should have reduced the deficit when Ball side-stepped Lewington’s challenge in the area, but his shot narrowly missed the far post - a stark reminder that the game was not over yet.
Indeed there was more drama to come as Dons were also reduced to 10 men and Posh clawed a crucial goal back from the penalty spot.
Robinson made his first changes with 15 minutes to go, replacing the tiring Powell with Keanu Marsh-Brown, and then Balanta with Jabo Ibehre three minutes later, signalling his intent to go for another goal rather than sitting back.
But that was a mistake they were made to pay for as Little broke on the counter attack for Posh. As Gleeson chased him down he clipped him in the penalty area, giving referee John Moss no option but to award the spot kick and send Gleeson off. McCann stepped up and sent Martin the wrong way with the penalty to pull the score back to 3-2 and begin a nervous final 10 minutes as Peterborough looked for an equaliser.
Mackail-Smith, who had been fairly quiet in the second half, fired narrowly wide with a minute to play. But it was Doumbe once again who had a glorious chance at the other end as Dons looked to have the final word, but his striker was palmed away by Jones.
The final whistle went moments later and players, fans and management on both sides could breathe a sigh of relief. Dons would no doubt have taken a narrow win - or probably even a draw - at half time, but after leading 3-1 will surely feel a little disappointed that the tie wasn’t put to bed. Instead, the two teams will do it all again at London Road in four days.
Dons: Martin, Lewington, Doumbe, MacKenzie, O’Hanlon, Gleeson, Clayton, Chadwick, Powell, Baldock, Balanta. Subs not used: Searle, Woodards, Marsh-Brown, Chicksen, Guy, Baldock, Ibehre
Posh: Lewis (Jones 45), Little, Zakuani (Langmead 32), Bennett, Lee, McCann, Rowe, Mendez-Laing (Ball 60), Boyd, Mackail-Smith, Tomlin. Subs not used: Newell, Wesolowski, Whelpdale, Davies.
Referee: John Moss. Attendance: 12,662.