By Chris Slavin
AFC Wimbledon's four-match unbeaten run came to an end this afternoon, after Neal Ardley's men failed to cancel out two early Walsall goals.
At 2-0 down after half an hour, Wimbledon had a mountain to climb, before Lyle Taylor's goal gave the Dons hope. However, snatching a point just proved beyond Wimbledon and now there's an eight-day break before the Emirates FA Cup clash against Charlton.
Neal Ardley made two changes from the side that started the midweek draw at Oldham. Tom Soares, who had been doubtful for this match, was left on the bench and replaced by young midfielder Anthony Hartigan. Jon Meades was also recalled in place of George Francomb.
AFC Wimbledon's last home match started with a bang, thanks to a goal from Lyle Taylor after just 36 seconds, but the Dons struggled to come out of the blocks quickly on this occasion. There was no meaningful chance for either side until a goal completely out of the blue for Walsall. Erhun Oztumer, who scored the first goal against AFC Wimbledon on the opening day of 2016/17 after promotion for the Dons, struck another superb effort against Neal Ardley's men. There looked to be nothing on when the diminutive midfielder latched onto the ball outside the area, but he struck a brilliant effort that left George Long with no chance as it arrowed towards the top corner.
Wimbledon attempted to respond with Andy Barcham once again carrying the fight. The pacy winger beat his man in trademark fashion, before sending over a fine cross that Walsall keeper Liam Roberts just reached before Taylor. Then Darius Charles sent over a cross that picked out Cody McDonald, but his header was straight into the arms of Roberts. Harry Forrester also created space for a shot from just outside the area, but his effort was over the crossbar. Thoughts of an equaliser were quickly extinguished though when Walsall struck a second goal. It was a goal of real simplicity with Zeli Ismail allowed to run down the right and his cross was touched home by Amadou Bakayoko.
At 2-0 down on the half hour mark, it would have been easy for Wimbledon to feel a little sorry for themselves as their opponents had scored twice with just two efforts on goal. However, the Dons stormed back and the deficit was halved in the 36th minute. It was a goal executed in great style too after an impressive team move. Barcham once again beat his marker and his cross found McDonald, who smartly set-up Taylor and he finished clinically. All of a sudden, the mood around the place was transformed, as Wimbledon threatened an equaliser before half-time. Barcham was once again the instigator of Wimbledon's best moments and another of his crosses fell for McDonald, but the Dons striker was stretching and Roberts grasped his header gratefully.
The second-half started with Wimbledon going all out for an equaliser. Another fine cross from Barcham just eluded McDonald at the far post. Then Walsall just got enough players back to stop a smart one-two between Barcham and McDonald from yielding any reward. Before the hour, Wimbledon forced several corners and free-kicks, but Walsall continued to hold firm. On one occasion, they defended resolutely, just managing to cling on after a shot from Darius Charles sparked a goalmouth scramble. As the pressure continued, Liam Trotter headed a cross from Jon Meades just wide.
Wimbledon really upped the tempo just after the hour and twice came close to equalising. A lovely cross from Taylor picked out Barry Fuller at the back post, but he fired over from just six yards out. Fuller then sent through a long ball that Taylor won at the second attempt and he tried his luck with a brilliant curler that flashed just over the crossbar. With 20 minutes to go and Wimbledon still behind, it meant the Dons had to chase the game, leaving opportunities for Walsall to break. The visitors had a two versus two situation after one quick break, but Wimbledon were fortunate that Ismail got the final pass all wrong. Then Long did well to stop a powerful drive from Kieron Morris.
With 14 minutes to play, Wimbledon made a double change. George Francomb came on for his 200th AFC Wimbledon appearance, the versatile midfielder first joining the Dons on loan back in 2012 from Norwich City. Francomb replaced Forrester and Tom Soares came on for Charles. However, Walsall weathered the pressure put on them at around the halfway point of the second-half and they held on for the points.
AFC Wimbledon: George Long, Barry Fuller, Jon Meades, Deji Oshilaja, Darius Charles (Tom Soares), Harry Forrester (George Francomb), Liam Trotter, Anthony Hartigan, Cody McDonald, Lyle Taylor, Andy Barcham (Egli Kaja).
Pic credit: Matt Redman, Pro Sports Images.