Yet again, Mark Robinson’s side displayed their welcome habit of fighting right until the very end of matches this season.
In a swashbuckling Papa John’s Trophy match, late goals by Will Nightingale and Luke McCormick earned a 5-3 win for Wimbledon, as Dons supporters watched an absolutely thrilling opening match for us in this competition.
Aaron Pressley scored twice, just failing to match Pompey’s Ellis Harrison, who helped himself to a hat-trick. Nevertheless, it was undoubtedly Pressley’s best match in a Dons shirt since he joined us on loan from Brentford – and Robbo believes there will be plenty more to come from him in the coming months.
Playing in a competition that brings the ultimate prize of reaching Wembley, Pressley spoke afterwards about attempting to go all the way and on this evidence why not? Robbo made several changes, but the victory once again showed the strength of his squad, something that has also been demonstrated in the Carabao Cup.
Mark Robinson had talked in the build-up to this match about maintaining momentum after the impressive victory versus Oxford, and he decided to retain five of the side that started that match. Will Nightingale, Anthony Hartigan, Ayoub Assal, Dapo Mebude, and Nesta Guinness-Walker were all in the line-up from the outset, and there was a notable inclusion between the sticks with Zaki Oualah making his competitive first-team debut. Portsmouth manager Danny Cowley made 11 changes, but it was still a strong squad full of first-teamers, and the average age of Wimbledon’s starting 11 was younger than Pompey’s.
The Dons enjoyed the perfect start when Hartigan swung over a corner from the left that Portsmouth failed to clear and it fell nicely for Paul Kalambayi, and he fired home from close range. It was Paul’s first goal for the club and it came on a night when he wore the captain’s armband. Pompey wasted no time attempting to find a way back into this match and Oualah did very well to deal with a cross, before he made his first save in the 15th minute. Mahlon Romeo was set-up by a fine pass from Louie Thompson, and he struck a decent effort that Oualah did well to save.
As the first-half progressed, Dapo Mebude was increasingly finding pockets of space and using his pace to great effect. He produced one of his trademark surges up the pitch, before finding Aaron Pressley, who produced an intelligent switch to set-up Ayoub Assal in the box. It appeared to be a really good opportunity for Assal to pull the trigger, but he delayed his shot and instead cut the ball back for Pressley, who had his shot deflected wide for a corner. Further chances followed for Wimbledon, first when Guinness-Walker delivered a superb free-kick from the left that picked out Kalambayi, but this time he headed wide.
Mebude’s pace and movement was certainly getting fans on the edge of their seats as he acted as the spark for most of Wimbledon’s best attacking moments. There was a good chance to double the advantage on the half hour when Ethan Chislett was found in space inside the area, but his shot was saved superbly by Jake Eastwood. However, the Pompey goalkeeper was unable to stop the Dons from making it two in the 42nd minute. A great team move that started deep inside Wimbledon's own half ended with Assal showing good movement to find space on the right, before picking out Aaron Pressley, who finished clinically from close range.
It appeared to be a job well done for the Dons as we headed towards half-time, but Portsmouth finished the half strongly. There was a warning sign for Wimbledon when Reeco Hackett-Fairchild shot against the crossbar, before George Hirst’s follow-up header also bounced off the woodwork, but then the ball was gathered by Oualah. However, Pompey did halve the deficit in first-half injury-time when Ellis Harrison struck a shot from outside the area that swerved wickedly to deceive Oualah, who was unable to keep it out.
With the half-time score at 2-1, this game was certainly in the melting pot, as the visitors sensed a way back into this match. Buoyed by that goal just before the break and shooting towards the end filled by their vocal travelling support, Portsmouth started the second-half on the front foot. Several corners were forced by the visitors, putting the Dons under pressure, and one of those yielded the equaliser. Conor Ogilvie’s header across the face of goal fell nicely for Harrison, whose header beat Oualah, despite him getting a hand to it.
After dominating the first-half but failing to put this match to bed, Wimbledon had a different kind of challenge now with this match having swung in Pompey’s favour. Hartigan’s free-kicks had been a real weapon in recent weeks, but one of his fine deliveries was well claimed by Eastwood, before the Pompey keeper also held onto Cheye Alexander’s header. Henry Lawrence was introduced for Mebude as Mark Robinson made his first change and a double substitution followed with 20 minutes remaining. Jack Rudoni and Luke McCormick replaced Ethan Chislett and Ayoub Assal as the Dons sought to get a grip back on the game.
With 12 minutes to go, it appeared that Portsmouth had scored a decisive goal when Oualah made a fine initial save to deny the visitors, but Harrison slotted home emphatically to notch his hat-trick. The lead was short-lived though as Wimbledon equalised less than two minutes later when Lawrence, who had earlier been booked when the referee adjudged that he had dived in the area, this time earned a penalty after being sent sprawling. Pressley stepped up and showed his coolness from 12 yards once again to beat Eastwood with a well placed spot-kick.
In a frantic finale, Oualah made an absolutely fantastic save, showing superb reflexes to dive to his left and tip George Hirst’s header out for a corner. With neither side settling for at least a point – group matches go to penalties with the winners getting an extra point – this could have gone either way. However, Wimbledon’s ability to make the most of set piece situations again came to fruition with three minutes of normal time remaining. Hartigan sent over another lovely delivery to the back post from a free-kick on the right side and Nightingale headed home emphatically, continuing his welcome habit of scoring since Robbo took over.
With time running out, Pressley was twice denied a hat-trick of his own, the latter by a fine save from Eastwood, but the Pompey keeper couldn’t stop us making it five in the final minute of injury time. Pressley found space on the right and though Eastwood saved his effort, McCormick was in the right place to apply the finish. The final whistle followed seconds later, and Dons fans that were packed into the West Stand showed their appreciation after another thriller on home turf. Roll on the next match at Plough Lane!
AFC Wimbledon: Zaki Oualah, Will Nightingale, George Marsh, Cheye Alexander, Anthony Hartigan, Ayoub Assal (Luke McCormick), Ethan Chislett (Jack Rudoni), Dapo Mebude (Henry Lawrence), Nesta Guinness-Walker, Aaron Pressley, Paul Kalambayi.