By Chris Slavin
AFC Wimbledon suffered a first league defeat in 2018 today with a goal from former Dons loanee Michael Smith setting up victory for Rotherham.
David Ball added a goal in injury-time to make it 2-0 for Rotherham, who certainly looked like worthy promotion contenders on this evidence. Wimbledon had shown plenty of resilience to stay in the game with 415 travelling Dons showing great support on the day. Substitute Joe Pigott came close to an equaliser after his introduction, but Ball's late goal killed off any hopes of salvaging a point.
Wimbledon were forced into a change to the starting line-up with Barry Fuller suffering a calf injury in the build-up and he was replaced by Paul Robinson, who took the captain's armband. Wimbledon came into this match with confidence high after an unbeaten league start to 2018, but Rotherham's unblemished run went as far back as early December.
Neal Ardley had warned that this would be Wimbledon's toughest recent challenge and the start to this match certainly vindicated that. Rotherham came out of the blocks quickly, forcing Wimbledon to defend deep. Will Vaulks tried his luck from20 yards, but it was just too high, and George Long appeared to have it covered. However, it needed a clearance off the line from Darius Charles to keep the score level, the Dons defender reacting well to stop David Ball's effort, before Liam Trotter hacked the ball clear.
The opening stages were dominated by Rotherham and Wimbledon only threatened to create a chance when Andy Barcham almost put Cody McDonald through, but the pass was just cut-out. However, that was no indication of a change in the pattern of this game, and it was no surprise when Rotherham took the lead. Joe Newell found space just outside the box and though the shot was on, he unselfishly played a lovely ball to the back post and former Dons loanee Michael Smith produced a clinical finish. With half an hour gone, Wimbledon had not really threatened to conjure up a response and Rotherham almost made it two when Ball sent over a lovely ball to the back post, but Newell was just unable to reach it.
As we approached half-time, Wimbledon carved out a decent opportunity, and certainly the best of the half so far for Neal Ardley's men. Lovely play from Deji Oshilaja on the right found Liam Trotter in the box, but his shot was blocked, and Lyle Taylor's follow-up across the face of goal was also cleared. At least it had been a better end to the first-half for Wimbledon with more possession and threat. However, Rotherham deservedly held a half-time lead, and they almost made it two just before the break when Ball curled just wide.
The second-half started with Rotherham pressing forward in search of another goal and it needed George Long to react well to stop a shot from Will Vaulks. Shortly afterwards, Rotherham squandered a great chance to make it 2-0. Newell, who impressed with his running down the left, sent over a cross that Paul Robinson could only divert into the path of Matt Palmer. He should have marked his debut with a goal, but he dragged his shot wide. At the other end, only last-ditch defending from Josh Emmanuel stopped Cody McDonald from running through on goal.
With 62 minutes on the clock, Neal Ardley made a double change with Joe Pigott and Harry Forrester replacing Cody McDonald and Tom Soares. The introduction of Pigott almost paid off immediately when George Francomb found space on the right and his cross was almost diverted in by the in-form Dons striker. All of a sudden, Rotherham were on the back foot with the changes having given the hosts something different to think about. Taylor also struck a shot that flashed wide of the goal, as Wimbledon continued to press. Rotherham just survived with 15 minutes left when a good move ended with a goalmouth scramble in the box. Pigott had a shot blocked and when Rotherham finally half cleared the ball, Francomb fired over the crossbar.
In the latter stages, you could sense a bit of tension around the ground with Rotherham having failed to earn the cushion of a second goal. Though Wimbledon attempted to press Rotherham back, the Dons were unable to fashion a late equaliser. Wimbledon did come close when Pigott's goal-bound effort was charged down, before Forrester had a good chance from inside the box, but he scuffed his volley and Rotherham keeper Marek Rodak gathered. In injury-time, Rotherham sealed it when Ball struck home from close-range and there was no way back for Wimbledon. There was certainly no shame in this defeat though against in-form opponents and Wimbledon have a quick chance to get points on the board at Bury on Tuesday night.
AFC Wimbledon: George Long, Deji Oshilaja, Paul Robinson (Jon Meades), George Francomb, Jimmy Abdou, Cody McDonald (Joe Pigott), Liam Trotter, Andy Barcham, Tom Soares (Harry Forrester), Darius Charles, Lyle Taylor.
Pic credit: Simon Davies, Pro Sports Images.