Wimbledon bowed out of the FA Cup in gallant fashion tonight by pushing Premier League Liverpool all the way.
In front of a bumper crowd of 4,784 at the Cherry Red Records Stadium, the Dons were eventually beaten 2-1 after Bayo Akinfenwa had raised the roof with a first-half equaliser. Liverpool needed Steven Gerrard to roll back the years as he broke Dons hearts with an impressive double in his first match since announcing he would be leaving the club this summer.
However, that failed to take the shine off a proud night for AFC Wimbledon as the Dons put on a great show in front of a live TV audience.
Neal Ardley made just one change to his starting line-up after the victory against Exeter City with Sammy Moore restored to the side after illness in place of Harry Pell. Brendan Rodgers selected a strong Liverpool side, led by Steven Gerrard, with internationals Jordan Henderson, Philippe Coutinho and Ricky Lambert among their line-up.
Despite struggling to gain any early possession, Wimbledon had the first real chance in the ninth minute. A lovely flick from Matt Tubbs sent Sean Rigg racing clear down the left, but he dragged his shot wide, albeit from an acute angle. Less than three minutes later, Liverpool snatched the lead with a well-worked move. Javier Manquillo found space down the right and delivered a lovely cross that Gerrard met perfectly with a fine header. At this stage, Liverpool dominated the game and Lazar Markovic fired across against the face of goal with a fierce effort.
However, Wimbledon gradually started to come into it and exerted pressure that really got the fans behind them just before the half hour mark. It started when Martin Skrtel only just managed to clear a superb cross from George Francomb. The subsequent corner was only half cleared and Rigg produced a fierce drive that Simon Mignolet saved brilliantly. Pressure from the Dons continued and it should have been 1-1 just after the half hour mark. Bayo Akinfenwa caused plenty of problems in the air and the ball fell nicely for Matt Tubbs, but he fired wide from close range.
With the loudest atmosphere heard at the Cherry Red Records Stadium for many a season, Wimbledon continued to pile on the pressure and earned their reward in the 36th minute. George Francomb delivered a teasing corner that Mignolet completely missed and when Mamadou Sakho headed against his own crossbar, Akinfenwa reacted quickest to steer home. The home faithful erupted and it was an equaliser that was fully deserved as Wimbledon showed so much spirit to respond to an early setback.
Wimbledon started the second-half on top and they so nearly took the lead shortly after the restart. It needed Gerrard to rescue Liverpool as he cleared Adam Barrett’s header off the line. At the other end, the Reds showed what they were capable of when Coutinho cut inside and unleased a drive that just bent wide.
It was always going to be tough for Wimbledon to retain such a high tempo against Premier League opposition and Liverpool seized the initiative again just after the hour. Barry Fuller brought down Coutinho just outside the box and that offered Gerrard a free-kick opportunity. What followed was a wonderful demonstration of technique perfected over many years at the top level as Gerrard curled the ball towards the top corner and a touch from James Shea was unable to stop it. Still the Dons refused to buckle and Dannie Bulman almost conjured up an instant response with a shot just over.
It needed Shea to pull off a fine save to deny Lambert and Gerrard fired a free-kick just wide. However, Wimbledon were still in it as we entered the last 15 minutes and Neal Ardley sent on Ade Azeez for Sean Rigg in an effort to get back into it. Shea was required to make another brilliant save to prevent Coutinho settling matters.
Shea also saved from Markovic near the end, but Wimbledon threatened an equaliser when a drive from substitute Ade Azeez was deflected wide. Azeez was also just foiled by Mignolet and Gerrard had his hat-trick bid blocked in a frantic finale. An Anfield replay was just not to be for Wimbledon, but what a way to go out for the Dons.
AFC Wimbledon: James Shea, Barry Fuller, Callum Kennedy, Sammy Moore (Harry Pell), Adam Barrett, Jake Goodman, Sean Rigg (Ade Azeez), Dannie Bulman, Bayo Akinfenwa, Matt Tubbs, George Francomb (Frankie Sutherland).