A superb attacking display was just enough to earn AFC Wimbledon a place in the third round of the Emirates FA Cup.
After Ayoub Assal and Ollie Palmer had both struck doubles to put the Dons 4-1 up, it really shouldn't have been so nervy. Robbo's boys had threatened to run riot, playing brilliant attacking football on the day, but Cheltenham fought back to make it 4-3 and we were hanging on at the end. On the balance of play, the Dons fully deserved it as the men in blue and yellow recaptured the attacking play that was so exciting earlier this season.
Assal, Jack Rudoni, and Luke McCormick were relentless with their energy and movement in supporting Ollie Palmer - and there was no shortage of skill too. Indeed, McCormick claimed three assists and his strike that struck the woodwork for Palmer to score would have been a goal of the season contender if it had hit the back of the net.
Mark Robinson selected an unchanged starting line-up after the 2-2 draw versus Fleetwood a week ago, but with our Head Coach permitted to name nine substitutes there was a place in the squad for Egli Kaja after he re-signed for us last week. In opposition, there was a familiar face with Chris Hussey, who had two spells with us, starting for Cheltenham. The visitors came into this match in good form with just one defeat in six having lifted them up to 12th in the League One table – six points above the Dons.
Wimbledon got off to the worst possible start by conceding after just 71 seconds. After Dan Csoka was dispossessed on our left side, the ball was crossed into the box and with no one able to clear it Alfie May pounced to curl home with a lovely finish. Far from panicking after going behind so early, the Dons wasted no time in attempting to strike back. After gaining a foothold back in the game, Anthony Hartigan sent through a sublime defence-splitting pass that almost picked out Ayoub Assal, but Cheltenham keeper Scott Flinders just got there first.
In the 16th minute Wimbledon came so close to restoring parity – and it would have been some goal too. A lovely move involving Alex Woodyard, Assal, Paul Osew, and Hartigan ended with the latter striking a shot from just outside the area that was bound for the roof of the net, before Cheltenham keeper Scott Flinders dived full stretch to tip it over the crossbar. Ben Heneghan was then involved in the action at both ends, firstly when he showed his defensive skills to block Liam Sercombe’s goal-bound shot, before threatening an equaliser with a header just off target after a corner.
Facing a well-drilled Cheltenham defence, the Dons had to be patient to create chances, but our midfield continued to probe with Woodyard and Hartigan becoming more influential as the game progressed. There was a good chance to equalise when Hartigan delivered a fine ball to send Luke McCormick racing through, but Flinders was out quickly to foil him. Ollie Palmer also headed over the crossbar from close-range after getting on the end of a fine cross by Jack Rudoni.
Our fans didn’t have to wait too much longer to celebrate a goal as the all-important equaliser came in the 36th minute. Luke McCormick opened up Cheltenham with a delightful inch-perfect pass through the middle to pick out Assal, who composed himself before sending a clinical low finish past Flinders. It’s certainly becoming a welcome habit now for Assal, who only scored his first home goal of the season last week – and the celebrations were not too bad either!
After levelling the match, Wimbledon were rampant in the spell leading up half-time with Assal, McCormick, and Rudoni proving difficult for Cheltenham to pick-up, as they provided impressive attacking options in support of Palmer. It was no surprise when the Dons took the lead in the 41st minute. McCormick, who was having one of his best games in a Wimbledon shirt, struck a superb effort from just outside the area that bounced off the woodwork, but Palmer followed up to make it 2-1. It had been a simply breathtaking spell of attacking football from Wimbledon and Robbo’s boys were full value for the half-time lead.
The start of the second-half had often been a weak spell for Wimbledon this season, but not this time! It was almost three when McCormick delivered yet another wonderful ball into the box to find Assal, but his deft header was beaten out by Flinders. However, that was just a temporary reprieve for Cheltenham as the Dons did increase the advantage 10 minutes after the break. Palmer this time turned provider as he found space on the right and delivered a cross that picked out Assal, who made no mistake from close-range.
There was no let-up from Wimbledon and arguably the goal of the day followed. Palmer once again showed that he's much more than just a target man as he turned inside the area after receiving a pass from McCormick and delivered a sublime curler into the far corner. Our in-form marksman showed his joy by celebrating in front of the West Stand, but it was the signal for some Cheltenham fans to head for the exits! In contrast, the home faithful were in buoyant mood as they enjoyed a superb attacking display from the Dons.
Robbo decided to make a triple change midway through the second-half with Kaja introduced for his first game back in a Dons shirt since his return as he replaced Assal, who departed after having an excellent game. Palmer was also withdrawn to a standing ovation after his double, replaced by Aaron Pressley, and George Marsh replaced Anthony Hartigan. It appeared to be game over, but Andy Williams had other ideas as he slotted home clinically after getting on the end of a pass by Liam Sercombe.
After getting a goal back, Cheltenham sensed that all was not lost for them and Heneghan was required to make a brilliant block to stop a goal-bound shot from reducing the arrears. However, the visitors did get another goal back in bizarre circumstances. A long kick by Flinders was headed towards his own goal by Heneghan and Nik Tzanev, who was off his line, was unable to react in time as the ball flashed past him and into the net.
Tzanev had to make two vital saves near the end, but the Dons just held on to earn a narrow but deserved victory. Onto the third round and who knows what awaits next? In the past decade we've faced Liverpool, Spurs, and West Ham in the famous old competition - and drawing another one of the big boys would be very much welcome on Monday night.
AFC Wimbledon: Nik Tzanev, Alex Woodyard, Anthony Hartigan (George Marsh), Ollie Palmer (Aaron Pressley), Ayoub Assal (Egli Kaja), Jack Rudoni, Nesta Guinness-Walker, Luke McCormick, Ben Heneghan, Paul Osew.