‘ARE you watching Liverpool?” It’s all happy-clappy in the Wimbledon camp eight days and counting before the big FA Cup tie after the tonic of the best win of the season over profligate Exeter City at Kingsmeadow on Sunday.
Four-one to the Dons and there’s plenty to be happy-clappy about. Confidence-boosting wins at Portsmouth on Boxing Day and now the in-form Grecians, an appearance off the bench by Bayo Akinfenwa, indicating he is nearing full fitness after a badly bruised shin, goals from Matt Tubbs and Ade Azeez and a full 90 minutes for confidence player Harry Pell.
Obviously the Dons need everything in alignment when they take on Liverpool at Kingsmeadow on January 5, but there’s nothing like a big win beforehand to gee up the confidence and, more importantly, the belief to compete and achieve. That’s got to be how the Dons go into this one-off opportunity.
Now Neal Ardley has some thinking to do over the next eight days. The gaffer has some selection options, players are queuing up to state their case for AFC Wimbledon’s most high-profile game before a national TV audience.
While it’s a chance for the Dons to get some much-needed Cup revenue and publicity/recognition it’s also an opportunity for Ardley the manager to match wits with his Premier League counterpart Brendan Rodgers.
Ardley has been criticised for over-complicating game plans, but this is an opportunity young, aspiring managers crave. The pressure is all on Liverpool and Rodgers, they are expected to win. Ardley just has to come up with the right plan to maximise Wimbledon’s small window of opportunity.
“I have some selection headaches going into the Liverpool game but we just need to keep this form going now,” Ardley said.
“I don’t see the Liverpool game as the biggest of my career, I see it as an exciting game, as a tactical challenge but I will enjoy it, more so probably than going into these games. We’re in a good place.
“If you’d asked me at the start of December what would have been on the wish list it would have been to be in the third round of the FA Cup with a big tie and to be in the top half of the table.”
The unexpected bloated final margin over Exeter City means the Dons have 33 points by the turn of the year, in 11th place and (whisper it ever so gently) just four points off the play-off spots heading into 2015. And indeed the Dons are in a good place right now — some five points better off than the corresponding stage last season.
The new year also heralds the opening of the transfer window and with it Ardley’s opportunity to strengthen the squad for the second half of the season. The gaffer has good form in attracting well-performed players to the club, it will be interesting to see who are in his sights this time round. Word about that he is in advanced talks with three player targets.
Exeter City came to Kingsmeadow as one of L2’s form teams. The Grecians had only lost one of their previous 11 league games and were nestling in eighth place.
To hand them their worst defeat of the season, putting four goals past them was some effort, albeit Exeter were in a very generous giving mood, symbolic of this time of year.
“I’m not sure it is the performance of the season, I thought we were lucky at half-time to be 1-0 up and I have to say Exeter are a good side,” Ardley said.
“Exeter haven’t been on the run they’ve been on because they’re not — they moved the ball really well.
“First half we struggled a little bit and I had to change the shape at half-time and in the second half we had more energy.
“But whenever you win by a high score it is because the opposition are throwing caution to the wind and we were ruthless in our finishing.”
That’s what it was down to. While Exeter City had their chances and spurned them, the Dons tucked them away. The home side was 4-0 up with four minutes of normal time left before the away side got a consolation goal in stoppage time.
“We weren’t that bad today – we weren’t that great either, but we certainly weren’t four goals bad,” Grecians team boss Paul Tisdale lamented.
The Western Mail’s match report said that Exeter City paid the price for their wastefulness. They had numerous opportunities, but failed to take them, while the Dons showed a ruthless edge.
“The score-line flattered us slightly because they had to push more men forward when they were chasing the game. That allowed us to catch them out and create more chances. We could have had more in the end, but there were spells when they could have equalised or gone ahead,” Ardley said.
It was the stage for Ade Azeez to push his claims as The Beast was nursed back into action coming off the bench for a late cameo role.
There’s no doubt Azeez has searing pace, a quality noticeably lacking in the Dons attack, but it is his touch and decision-making which hold the youngster back. His goal and another credited as an own goal was well received by the home crowd, who gave him a rousing send-off when he was withdrawn for Akinfenwa 20 minutes from time.
It was Azeez’s goal with 19 minutes left that clinched it for the Dons. He powered onto a through ball and finished emphatically before taking his leave to the adulation of the home fans.
“Ade should have scored against Portsmouth and our second goal today has gone down as an own goal. Bayo was not quite ready to come on and as Ade was going through I was thinking ‘go and finish it’. I wanted to bring Ade off with the fans clapping him because of his goal and that’s what happened,” Ardley said.
“He is the type of player who is dynamic and will run hard for the team. He put in a good shift today. It was probably time to put Bayo on and give them a different type of problem.”
Tubbs, the subject of transfer window speculation, scored his 12th league goal of the campaign finishing from close range in the ninth minute after being picked out by Callum Kennedy on the left.
Exeter City controlled possession and the Dons were forced into last-ditch defending to prevent an equaliser when Jake Goodman brilliantly cleared a Liam Sercombe effort off the line. They had a few other chances to score as half-time approached.
Sean Rigg produced a brilliant cross from the left that found Azeez after the restart but Exeter defender Christian Ribeiro helped the ball cross the line and it was credited as an own goal.
Still more threat from the Grecians with James Shea pulling off a great save to deny Ryan Harley before Azeez killed off the game with the Dons’ third.
Wimbledon made it 4-0 near the end when Akinfenwa finished off from close range after good work by Pell before Exeter City finally found the net in stoppage time.
WDSA stalwart Liam Nolan enjoyed his day at Kingsmeadow: “What a fantastic day. Quite simply the most entertaining game I have seen at Kingsmeadow for quite some time. We could surely not be going into some minor Cup game coming up in better form.”
Read more views on the WDSA forum match thread