By Chris Slavin
AFC Wimbledon made a gallant exit from the Carabao Cup with Championship outfit Brentford coming from behind to triumph in extra-time.
Paul Robinson's first-half opener threatened an upset, but Brentford turned it around to level, before securing a 3-1 victory after the added period. Neal Ardley's men had put so much into the 120 minutes and there was plenty of encouragement to take from pushing Brentford all the way. In recent seasons, Brentford had come agonisingly close to reaching the Premier League and this display perhaps showed how far Wimbledon had progressed in recent years.
Neal Ardley made four changes from the side that started at Scunthorpe on Saturday with two of those enforced due to injured pair Jimmy Abdou and Liam Trotter missing out. Seventeen-year-old Anthony Hartigan was handed his first competitive start in the midfield, a reward for his bright pre-season form. Dean Parrett was also handed a recall and he was joined in the team by Will Nightingale and Lyle Taylor, the pair replacing Deji Oshilaja and Kwesi Appiah.
It was a tough opening spell for Wimbledon as a Brentford side with 10 changes to their starting line-up showed Championship quality. Ollie Watkins drove just over in the fifth minute as the Bees piled forward and it needed brilliant last-ditch defending from captain Barry Fuller to stop Neal Maupay in his tracks. Watkins also sent in a dangerous cross that just evaded everyone in the box as Brentford turned up the heat.
Following an opening 15 minutes largely spent in the Wimbledon half, the Dons mounted a promising attack with Fuller getting down the flank and sending over a cross that almost picked out Barcham in the box. A really good spell followed from Wimbledon, a fired-up Taylor really carrying the fight. It was his forward endeavour that really started to put Brentford under pressure and he won the corner that led to an opening goal for Wimbledon. Indeed, it was a corner involving Taylor that caught out Brentford. The Dons striker met Dean Parrett's corner with a fierce drive that was blocked and though Andy Barcham's follow-up was also half cleared, Paul Robinson's flick looped over a man on the line to put Wimbledon in front.
Despite the goal for Wimbledon, the forward momentum continued for Brentford. Harlee Dean headed just over the crossbar, before Wimbledon needed George Long to pull off a superb reaction save to deny Romaine Sawyer. Ilias Chatzitheordoridis also struck a 25-yard effort that looped just over the crossbar. Though the Dons had been forced onto the back foot for long spells, there had been plenty of encouraging moments at the other end. Just before the break, Hartigan, who had produced an assured midfield display for one so young, struck a fierce drive that Brentford keeper Luke Daniels scrambled to his left to save. The half-time whistle signalled a job well done so far from Wimbledon.
A slender Wimbledon lead was almost doubled four minutes into the second-half. A brilliant cross from the left by Callum Kennedy picked out Cody McDonald, who met it superbly with a lovely header that thudded off the crossbar via the outstretched hand of Daniels and his follow-up was just saved too. Wimbledon showed plenty of attacking ambition in the second-half, Neal Ardley's side growing in confidence as they really started to believe the upset could be on. Fuller cut inside and tried his luck, but there was no repeat of his rare strike against Ebbsfleet as it arrowed over the bar. Then a lovely Dons move involving Barcham and McDonald ended with Dean Parrett firing wide.
Evidence of Wimbledon's second-half supremacy was that it took until the 64th minute for the visitors to register an effort on goal when Nico Yennaris had his shot saved by Long. With Wimbledon having played so well in the second-half, it was something of a surprise when Brentford equalised. It was a stunning strike that restored parity with Romaine Sawyers blasting into the top corner from just outside the area to leave Long with no chance. It is often said that teams are at their most vulnerable after conceding and Wimbledon came so close to regaining the lead less than a minute later. Substitute Kwesi Appiah, who had only been on the pitch a matter of minutes, latched onto a through ball and struck it really well, but it was cleared off the line.
A key incident arrived shortly afterwards as the match continued to flow from end to end. Brentford claimed that Long handled a through ball outside his area, but the referee and his officials were unimpressed by the claims. The Brentford protests overshadowed a bad miss from substitute Josh McEachran, who blazed over with the follow-up. As Brentford attempted to up the tempo, Yennaris shot tamely wide and then Long stayed alert to deny McEachran. However, Wimbledon ended the 90 minutes on the front foot. Taylor, who impressed all night with his tireless running and movement, put over a lovely cross that was just deflected wide. From the subsequent corner, an effort from Fuller was just scrambled clear. That was basically the last chance of normal time and with the two sides unable to be separated, another 30 minutes was required.
Neal Ardley utilised a new rule at the start of extra-time with teams permitted to bring on a fourth substitute in the competition. Egli Kaja was the man thrust into the action as he replaced Barcham. Less than two minutes into extra-time, Wimbledon needed Robinson to come to the rescue. Having made such a crucial contribution at the other end with the opening goal, Robinson showed the defensive qualities that had become his trademark over the years, straining every sinew to get back and clear Sawyer's effort off the line. Wimbledon threatened a goal at the other end though when Parrett sent Fuller racing clear on the right and his cross was just cut out.
As the first-half of extra-time progressed, Wimbledon's defending became increasingly desperate. Last-ditch defending from Fuller and Robinson managed to just about stop Brentford, before Long reacted superbly to stop Henrik Daalsgard. Dean then headed wide as Wimbledon clung on. Just when Wimbledon appeared to have weathered the storm, Brentford struck again just seconds before the end of the first period. It came after Wimbledon switched off from a corner, the ball played short and Ollie Watkins cut inside and struck a brilliant curling effort that left Long with no chance. The timing was so tough to take for Wimbledon, in particular Long, who had performed heroically in goal.
During the second period, Wimbledon bravely rallied with Brentford settling for what they had. Taylor had an effort charged down from an acute angle as the Dons threatened to pull it out of the bag. With two minutes of injury-time to go, Brentford sealed it when Justin Shaibu cracked home from close-range. There was still time for Alfie Egan to strike against a post as Wimbledon bowed out of the competition at the first round stage.
AFC Wimbledon: George Long, Barry Fuller, Callum Kennedy, Paul Robinson, Will Nightingale (Deji Oshilaja), Anthony Hartigan, George Francomb (Alfie Egan), Dean Parrett, Lyle Taylor, Cody McDonald (Kwesi Appiah), Andy Barcham, (Egli Kaja).
Pic credit: Matt Redman, Pro Sports Images.