AFC Wimbledon’s bold display at the Kassam Stadium eventually ended in Carabao Cup elimination after Oxford triumphed on penalties.
The side beaten in last season’s League One play-off final won the penalty shoot-out 4-3 after Wimbledon had battled back to earn a 1-1 draw in normal time. The Dons even had a chance to win it in the 83rd minute when Nesta Guinness-Walker earned a penalty, but Anthony Hartigan’s shot from 12 yards was saved by Simon Eastwood. Despite the disappointment of being knocked out at the first round stage, Glyn Hodges quite rightly took the positives from a performance that offered plenty of promise for the season ahead.
Despite a midweek victory in the EFL Trophy, Glyn Hodges decided to rotate his squad with five changes made to the starting line-up. Luke O’Neill, Alex Woodyard, Cheye Alexander, Nesta Guinness-Walker, and Joe Pigott came in for Will Nightingale, Ethan Chislett, Shane McLoughlin, Paul Osew, and Adam Roscrow. Pigott was handed the captain’s armband with Nightingale on the bench. Alexander and Woodyard were making their competitive Wimbledon debuts after both signed earlier this summer.
Back at the scene of a chastening defeat in February, the Dons had to soak up early pressure at the Kassam Stadium. It didn’t take long for Oxford to test Connal Trueman with Cameron Brannagan curling in a free-kick from an acute angle in the third minute that the on-loan Birmingham keeper turned over. As the early pressure from the hosts continued, former Liverpool midfielder Brannagan, so often the player who makes Oxford tick, sent over a fine corner that Elliott Moore headed over the crossbar. The Dons had defended stoutly to defy last season’s play-off finalists in the early exchanges.
As the first-half progressed, Wimbledon really started to come into this game. It took until midway through the first period for the Dons to test Simon Eastwood, but it was a fine effort that nearly opened the scoring. Terell Thomas, who scored with a powerful header in midweek, was almost celebrating another when he controlled the ball well from a free-kick and struck a fierce shot from an acute angle that was turned away by the keeper. Midfielders Anthony Hartigan, Callum Reilly, and Alex Woodyard were now starting to see more of the ball as Wimbledon really came into the game. Several corners were earned, but the closest Wimbledon came was when Hartigan’s corner was headed back by Paul Kalambayi, but it was just too high for Pigott to reach. Guinness-Walker also had a shot charged down as Wimbledon attempted to score a first goal at the Kassam Stadium since that memorable 3-1 victory in October 2016.
The half ended with Wimbledon attacking, but unable to really build on that good spell around the half hour mark. Wimbledon’s defending was much-improved from that last visit here and holding a greater share of possession restricted Oxford from getting their passing game going. Certainly, Wimbledon could take plenty of encouragement from the 0-0 score-line and the team performance so far.
Wimbledon came out at the start of the second-half and continued the attacking momentum. A fine move ended with Alex Woodyard picking out Guinness-Walker on the left, but his cross was cut out. The Dons came very close to breaking the deadlock in the 53rd minute. A free-kick by Callum Reilly was initially cleared out to Oxford’s left, but Ryan Longman delivered a lovely cross that Luke O’Neill met with a powerful header, and it was superbly saved by Eastwood. The Dons seemed to have decent claims for a penalty when Joe Pigott got in behind his marker Alex Gorrin and went down under the challenge, but the referee thought otherwise.
Considering the pattern of this second-half with Wimbledon having the better of it, an opening goal for Oxford came as something of a surprise. The goal in the 63rd minute came out of nothing with Brannagan’s speculative shot from outside the box appearing to deceive Trueman to find the back of the net. Oxford threatened a second shortly afterwards when Liam Kelly shot at goal, but this time Trueman saved and Wimbledon scrambled the ball clear. The response from Wimbledon to falling behind was very creditable and the equaliser arrived just four minutes after conceding. Following a half cleared corner, Ryan Longman’s effort just had enough on it to cross the line, via a deflection, and the Dons were deservedly level.
Wimbledon continued to pile forward after notching the equaliser and there was a fantastic chance to book a place in the second round when Nesta Guinness-Walker was fouled in the box by Anthony Forde in the 83rd minute. Anthony Hartigan stepped up to take it, but his penalty was too close to Eastwood, who made a good save. Neither side was able to score again, so that meant a penalty shoot-out was required to separate the two sides. Luke O’Neill’s successful spot-kick was followed up by two unsuccessful Dons penalties with Callum Reilly and Nesta Guinness-Walker both denied by Eastwood. Though Cheye Alexander and Joe Pigott both scored and Connal Trueman saved James Henry’s shot from 12 yards, Cameron Brannagan's spot-kick won it for Oxford.
Defeat in the circumstances was tough to take, but the way that Wimbledon took the game to last season’s beaten play-off finalists was a real positive to take into the first league game at Northampton next Saturday.
AFC Wimbledon: Connal Trueman, Luke O’Neill, Alex Woodyard, Terell Thomas, Cheye Alexander, Anthony Hartigan, Nesta Guinness-Walker, Ryan Longman, (Ethan Chislett) Paul Kalambayi, Callum Reilly, Joe Pigott.