DONS will face a Tuesday night play-off decider in Huddersfield after they fell to a lacklustre 1-0 home defeat to Walsall on Saturday.
Emanuel Ledesma pounced on Tom Flanagan’s 19th minute slip to curl the ball round David Martin to put the visitors in front as Dons failed to register a shot on target.
With Huddersfield winning 2-0 against Yeovil, they leapfrogged Dons into fourth place, securing the vital advantage of the second leg at home.
Karl Robinson made five changes to the team that overcame Rochdale last week, though most notably was the absence of Gary MacKenzie who didn’t even feature on the bench.
Walking out onto the stadium:mk pitch, players and staff from both teams formed a guard of honour for Dons assistant manager John Gorman, who announced his retirement from football last week after more than 40 years in the game. He was accompanied onto the pitch with his two grandchildren.
Walsall barely touched the ball in the opening 10 minutes as Dons put on a master-class of passing over the crisp looking stadium:mk pitch. But ironically it was the visitors who should have taken the lead in the 11th minute when Will Grigg’s shot deflected into the path of Emaniel Ledesma who’d beaten the offside trap, but was slow in reacting and could only poke at it, kicking it straight at David Martin who raced off his line to close the angle.
And from there, the Saddlers began to look the better side. Ledesma fired into the side netting two minutes later, but it was Grigg who handed the away side the lead on 18 minutes when he capitalised on Tom Flanagan’s slip to race into the box and bend a shot into the far corner of the net for 1-0.
Dons struggled to find their way in the game after the goal, allowing Walsall to dictate much of the proceedings. It was all too narrow from the home team, barely making use of Dean Bowditch and Daniel Powell on the flanks. When they did get the ball, both looked dangerous in attacking their full-backs, but the busy centre of the park restricted their opportunities to cross.
Ledesma was proving to be a real thorn in the side of Dons’ defence and he could have doubled Walsall’s lead 10 minutes before the break when he raced onto another ball in behind the defence. But Shaun Williams kept in touch and slid in at the right time, putting off the striker as his tame strike rolled safely to Martin.
Dons threatened with a corner just before the break, but it was quickly turned around into another counter-attack, though Martin again was wise to the move, shaking his head in despair as he watched his defence part too often during the first 45 minutes.
The home side came out with renewed vigour in the second period, and kept a lid on Walsall’s counter-attacking system but still failed to test Saddlers keeper Jimmy Walker at all as the clock ticked over to the hour mark. Jabo Ibehre, Jay O’Shea and Luke Chadwick were introduced at the expense of Bowditch, Alan Smith and Adam Chicksen. The changes certainly lifted the crowd for the first time in the game and it had the desired effect on the pitch too as Dons set up camp in the Walsall half. However, the finishing of Gleeson and Potter left a lot to be desired as both blazed shots well over the crossbar from range as Walker remained untroubled.
Dons were dealt a huge slice of luck though when Darren Potter tried to play offside in a rare Walsall attack, but Alex Nicholls went clear and somehow put the ball wide when he was one-on-one with Martin, to the surprise of everyone in the ground.
In the melee, Chadwick pulled up as he raced to get back and after receiving treatment, went straight down the tunnel, reducing the home side to 10 men for the remainder of the game.
Despite the home side seeing more of the ball, the chances on goal were few and far between and horrendously off target when someone dared pull the trigger from long range.
It was a disappointing end to the regular season, with Dons perhaps keeping half an eye on the play-offs rather than the task at hand. Ultimately though, they’ll be back at stadium:mk next Saturday for the first leg against Huddersfield.
Referee: Andy D’Urso
MK Dons: Martin, Lewington, Chicksen, Williams, Flanagan, Potter, Gleeson, Powell, Bowditch (O’Shea 59), Alan Smith (Ibehre, 59), MacDonald
Subs not used: McLoughlin, Collins, Chadwick
Walsall: Walker, Sadler, Butler, Emmanuele Smith, Chambers, Grigg (Macken 69), Beevers, Paterson (Hurst 74), Nicholls, Mantom, Ledesma
Subs not used: Westlake, Grof, Lancashire