By Chris Slavin
Jon Meades could hardly have chosen a better time to net his first goal this season with his winner breathing new life into Wimbledon's survival hopes.
Meades (pictured striking the winner) notched the decisive goal against his former club in a 2-1 win that rewarded a Wimbledon display full of spirit and determination. It was everything required in the circumstances and it could be a vital three points in the fight to stay in League One.
Neal Ardley made two changes to his starting line-up after the defeat at Blackburn 11 days ago. Fit-again Darius Charles returned to the heart of defence in place of Paul Robinson and there was a recall for Cody McDonald as he replaced Jon Meades, the Dons reverting to two up front.
With both teams aiming to hit the ground running after postponements last weekend, it was Oxford offering a greater threat early on. With just three minutes gone, Wimbledon needed captain Barry Fuller to show good anticipation when he got back to clear off the line after Isaac Buckley-Ricketts had headed a Ricardinho cross towards goal. In a nervy start from the Dons, great defending was required from Deji Oshilaja to stop Jon Obika going clean through on goal. It took until the 16th minute for Wimbledon to go close when Lyle Taylor cut in from the left and tried a curler from 15 yards that flashed just wide.
Oxford should have opened the scoring in the 20th minute when a blocked shot from Buckley-Ricketts fell nicely for Josh Ruffels, but he blazed high and wide. Wimbledon's response was a good one with Cody McDonald almost making the breakthrough. Liam Trotter produced a defence-splitting pass that sent McDonald racing through, but he shot into the side netting from an acute angle. That failed to change the pattern of a first half hour that saw Oxford piling forward at every opportunity and Ruffels produced a far better effort that flashed just over the crossbar. However, Wimbledon took the lead shortly afterwards after Todd Kane was adjudged to have brought down Harry Forrester in the box. Lyle Taylor stepped up and sent Oxford keeper Simon Eastwood the wrong way with a clinical spot-kick.
Wimbledon's opener resulted in a spirited response from Oxford and they were level just six minutes later. A shot from Buckley-Ricketts was well saved by George Long, but Kane was in the right place to steer home from close-range. Oxford swarmed forward to try and get a second and Long had to be quick off his line to stop Ricardinho. With Oshilaja and Charles defending valiantly at the heart of defence, Wimbledon held firm though and at the other end, Forrester turned smartly and tried a deft lob that Eastwood watched all the way. Wimbledon had shown spirit to dig in after a difficult start and that offered encouragement for the second-half. Certainly, a tenacious challenge from Fuller on Ricardinho encapsulated what was required, the Dons captain going in hard, but fair, to win the duel.
Neal Ardley made a double change at half-time with Jon Meades and Joe Pigott entering the fray for Andy Barcham and McDonald. Both sides struggled to create anything of note at the start of the second-half. Ryan Ledson attempted to beat Long from distance, but his effort lacked the height to threaten Wimbledon's keeper. Long also had to stay alert to catch a free-kick from near the halfway line by Cameron Brannagan.
Wimbledon showed signs of threat as the half progressed with Forrester attempting to pull the strings, and now it was Oxford holding firm at the back. The visitors did have a great opportunity in the 65th minute when Deji Oshilaja was unable to get enough on his defensive header and Oxford substitute Wes Thomas went clean through, but he failed to get enough on his shot and Long saved well. Dons pressure had resulted in several set-pieces in the Oxford half and one of those earned the ultimate reward. A searching free-kick from the left by Taylor was missed by everyone in the box, including Oxford keeper Eastwood, and Meades was in the right place to finish well from an acute angle. The goal signalled ecstatic scenes among Wimbledon players and fans alike, perhaps offering a launchpad to safety.
Oxford struggled to strike back with Wimbledon continuing to go forward and defending well at the other end. The latter stages proved to be fairly comfortable for Wimbledon. Though the manner of victory had not been pretty, no one in blue and yellow cared and this could be a crucial victory in the battle to stay up.
AFC Wimbledon: George Long, Barry Fuller, Deji Oshilaja, Darius Charles, George Francomb, Liam Trotter, Harry Forrester (Tom Soares), Jimmy Abdou, Cody McDonald (Joe Pigott), Lyle Taylor, Andy Barcham (Jon Meades).
Pic credit: Matt Redman, Pro Sports Images.