AFC Wimbledon were fully deserving of a point on a night in which they fought tooth and nail with one of League One’s play-off contenders.
The young Dons left everything on the pitch in what was a high-octane display that really got the crowd going on Tuesday evening with Jack Rudoni coming the closest on a night of yet more frustration in front of goal for the men in blue and yellow.
Even though it wasn’t the victory that everyone had yearned for, it was another step in the right direction as another welcome clean sheet provided the foundations for what was a true Wimbledon performance that just lacked the finishing touch it so thoroughly deserved.
The pressing was at it’s effective best, the tackles were flying in and the leadership on show was that of a team that had got their mojo back. It was certainly a benchmark that the Dons can now look to build on ahead of a trip to Burton Albion this weekend.
There were some questionable calls from the officials on the night as well as some challenges which trod the line of being legal. However, our men kept their heads and showed that they were far from pushovers against a side that had only lost two of their last 12 league outings.
The maturity from our young side shone through during this hard-fought contest, once again highlighting the togetherness that exists within this group, and the home fans once again gave them as much vocal backing as they could muster from the stands.
It was the third time that these two sides had locked horns this season with the two sides having played out two tantalising clashes - 5-3 and 2-1 - with one win each. There was therefore a chance to claim some bragging rights on a chilly Tuesday evening as this rearranged fixture took centre stage.
Mark Robinson made two changes to the side which drew against Morecambe on Saturday with Dan Csoka coming in for Ben Heneghan as part of the back four and Dapo Mebude replacing Ayoub Assal out wide. Meanwhile, Nesta Guinness-Walker returned to the bench after serving a one-match suspension.
As has been the case on plenty of occasions this season, Wimbledon started with bucket loads of energy and zip and soon threatened to take the lead within two minutes. An intricately constructed move resulted in Rudoni being found in the penalty area after the ball was knocked down to him, and his effort from close range forced Gavin Bazunu into a brilliant save to repel the danger.
It was a strong warning for Portsmouth and was certainly a sign of what was to come during the opening stages of the first half as the Dons looked to take control on home turf. The newly formed partnership of Alex Woodyard and George Marsh battled hard in midfield, challenges flying in aplenty as both sides sought to get their tempo going. However, this resulted in a slightly scrappy first 20 minutes as territorial advantages were sought all over the pitch.
Wimbledon’s pressing game was slowly kicking into gear with Mebude looking lively wide on the left, whilst the likes of Luke McCormick and Rudoni were constant pests for the Pompey back three to deal with. Ollie Palmer was also showcasing good game intelligence in the first 45 minutes and made his first notable contribution in the final third, just shy of the 23rd minute as he seized on a loose ball before driving forward. His lay-off to McCormick after that powerful run was slightly lacking and the midfielder did well to arrow an effort wide of Bazunu’s right-hand post as the Dons once again underlined that Pompey would be in for a tough night.
A goalmouth scramble was to follow soon after as a McCormick corner wasn’t dealt with by the Pompey backline. Rudoni, Marsh and Will Nightingale all threw their bodies into the mix but luckily for the away side they managed to clatter it to safety at the second attempt. The hosts’ distribution out to the flanks was superb in the first period. Those advancing the ball in the wide areas were almost always being well supported as they broke forward in numbers at every opportunity.
A typically lively away end from the south coast was well matched by the Wimbledon faithful as they made themselves heard at a midweek home game for the first time in what felt like forever. However, the Dons’ players had to stay focused despite making a bright impression in the opening sections of the first half as Csoka was forced into an acrobatic goal-line clearance, which removed the danger momentarily before Robbo’s men survived a mini barrage of corners.
As half-time dawned both sides had a chance to take stock after what had been a particularly frantic first half, the three points still being very much up for grabs with the match finely balanced on a knife edge.
The Dons were almost caught cold from the offset in the second half as a low ball from Mahlon Romeo found Pompey’s latest January signing, Tyler Walker, whose snapshot was well watched by Nik Tzanev in the Wimbledon goal as he parried it behind for an early corner. It was a purposeful start from the visitors who were clearly fired up from what was a tightly contested first 45 minutes.
Wimbledon kept their cool in the opening stages and quickly created an opening of their own as Palmer again dropped deep before exchanging passes cleverly with McCormick. Unluckily for the marauding Dons’ number nine, the return pass was just ahead of him as Pompey recovered well. With an hour on the clock the scores were still level despite the contest remaining open as ever as the atmosphere continued to cook nicely off the field of play.
Sensing a chance to hit the front, Robbo made his first role of the dice as Assal made his way onto the pitch in place of Mebude with 27 and a half minutes left to play. And it didn’t take the lively Moroccan long to get involved in the action as he quickly put Hayden Carter in the opposition defence under strong pressure and won a free-kick, underlining his reputation as a real difference maker in this Wimbledon side.
Pompey were then next to show their hand in the attacking third as Romeo took aim from distance, the Millwall loanee seeing his powerful effort ping off the top of the Dons’ crossbar as Wimbledon rode their luck with 15 minutes to play. This prompted the hosts into a second change of the evening, the impressive Palmer being replaced by Terry Ablade. However, the pressure just wouldn’t cease, with both Ronan Curtis and Sean Raggett both forcing Tzanev into making two excellent saves from close range as the corners rained in on the Dons’ goal.
Wimbledon had to weather the storm as we entered the final 10 minutes with the home crowd urging them on. Guinness-Walker was then thrown on to add some extra attacking threat from out wide, Paul Osew replaced after another eye-catching performance at left back. Nightingale was leading by example as the game entered the latter stages, the centre back doing well to repel several dangerous deliveries into the box as both he and Csoka battened down the hatches.
Wimbledon’s leadership qualities certainly shone through in the closing stages but once again there was frustration as the hosts drew a blank for the fifth game running, the points shared after a pulsating 90 minutes. Attentions now turn to Saturday with a trip to the Pirelli Stadium on the horizon, as the Dons seek to refind that scoring touch once again.
AFC Wimbledon: Nik Tzanev, Dan Csoka, Alex Woodyard, Will Nightingale, George Marsh, Cheye Alexander, Ollie Palmer (Terry Ablade), Jack Rudoni, Dapo Mebude (Ayoub Assal), Luke McCormick, Paul Osew (Nesta Guinness-Walker).