By Chris Slavin
League leaders Wigan eventually proved too strong for AFC Wimbledon this afternoon, but it was only after Harry Forrester's sending off that they really made the points difference tell.
Up until Forrester's 67th minute dismissal for a second bookable offence, Neal Ardley's men were more than holding their own at just one down, but Wigan ruthlessly exposed the gaps in the latter stages to win 4-0.
The outcome was far from the end to a monumental week that Wimbledon had wanted, the heavy loss coming after the elation of approval being given to move back to Plough Lane. However, there was nothing wrong with the commitment to the cause shown by Wimbledon's players as Wigan were matched for long spells before the sending off.
It had been almost two weeks since the last game here – that impressive FA Cup victory against Charlton Athletic – and Neal Ardley decided to keep an unchanged team. There was a welcome return to the squad after injury for Kwesi Appiah, who was involved for the first time since September.
Wigan's status as League One leaders and the manner of their performances suggested that there would be plenty of attacking intent from a visiting team at the Cherry Red Records Stadium and so it proved. Inside two minutes Wigan fashioned a great chance when former Manchester United forward Nick Powell produced fine skill on the right flank to set-up Gavin Massey, but he fired wide from close-range. With Wigan having so much possession early on, Wimbledon had to stay disciplined in defence and make the most of any opportunities at the other end. Impressive individual skill from Harry Forrester created space for him to slide through a defence-splitting pass that Cody McDonald almost got on the end of, before Jon Meades failed to direct a Lyle Taylor corner on target.
Wimbledon needed George Long to be at his best in the 19th minute with the on-loan Sheffield United keeper reacting superbly to keep the Dons level. Massey found space on the right and his cross fell nicely for Michael Jacobs, but Long saved brilliantly from point-blank range and then Lee Evans struck the rebound wide. Shortly afterwards, a good attacking spell for Wimbledon ended with a deep cross from Barry Fuller that Andy Barcham was just unable to reach at the far post. With 10 minutes of the first-half to go, Wimbledon started to exert a bit of pressure and Wigan defender Chey Dunkley was perhaps fortunate to avoid a yellow card for a high challenge on McDonald. The subsequent free-kick was swung in by Lyle Taylor, but Wigan continued to hold firm from set-pieces.
As we approached half-time, Wigan had another good opportunity to make the breakthrough when Massey found space on the left and cut the ball back for Sam Morsy, but he fired wide of the target. The half-time score of 0-0 was a reflection of how well the Dons had defended with an impressive Wigan side restricted to just two or three good chances.
Wimbledon upped the tempo after half-time with Wigan now having to defend for a sustained spell. A lovely ball in from the left by Jon Meades almost picked out Lyle Taylor, but a Wigan defender just managed to clear it first for a corner. However, Wigan stayed strong at the back and a quick break from the visitors resulted in the opening goal. The move was allowed to progress after referee Brett Huxtable failed to blow for a foul on Lyle Taylor and Wigan took full advantage. Massey, who had been a constant danger all afternoon, got in behind the Wimbledon defence on the Wigan left and his cross was deflected into the path of Michael Jacobs, who finished clinically.
Initially, Wimbledon were rocked by that and Nick Powell almost doubled the advantage when his shot from the edge of the area flashed just wide. There was a good response from Wimbledon though with Wigan forced onto the back foot. The Dons came closest to equalising when a corner was only half cleared and Darius Charles sent over a cross that Tom Soares was just unable to force over the line, Wigan keeper Christian Walter reacting brilliantly to stop it. There was a hammer blow to Wimbledon's hopes of turning this around when Harry Forrester was sent off for a second bookable offence.
The disadvantage did not stop Neal Ardley from making a positive double change when he sent on Appiah for his competitive return to action and he was joined by Anthony Hartigan. McDonald and Soares were the men withdrawn. It was effectively game over 17 minutes from time when Nick Powell cracked home a stunning strike from just outside the area, George Long left with no chance as it arrowed into the top corner. With 10 minutes to go, Wigan were celebrating a third goal and it came in some style too. A free-kick was tapped short for substitute Max Power and he struck an absolute screamer from 30 yards into the roof of the net. It was definitely the goal of the day and Wimbledon's challenge had effectively ended with Forrester's dismissal, the league leaders taking full advantage.
One couldn't fault the effort and endeavour from Wimbledon on the day, but the sending off was always going to be capitalised on by a team of Wigan's quality and the latter stages were tough to endure for Wimbledon supporters. Wigan substitute Ivan Toney rubbed salt into the wounds with a deflected strike with the league leaders now ruthlessly exploiting their advantage. The 4-0 score-line was harsh on Wimbledon with the hosts having been well in the game before the sending off. With Bradford up next at home, it doesn't get any easier for Wimbledon, but there was certainly nothing wrong with this performance for the best part of 70 minutes.
AFC Wimbledon: George Long, Barry Fuller, Jon Meades, Deji Oshilaja, Darius Charles, Harry Forrester, Liam Trotter, Tom Soares (Anthony Hartigan), Cody McDonald (Kwesi Appiah), Lyle Taylor, Andy Barcham.
Pic credit: Matt Redman, Pro Sports Images.