Dons have reasons to be cheerful in spite of opening day loss

AFC WIMBLEDON 1
Pigott 50

ROTHERHAM UNITED 2
Ladapo 29, Robertson 84

BY DANIEL MARSH AT THE CHERRY RED RECORDS STADIUM

AFC Wimbledon’s most recent League One campaign was certainly a campaign of two halves, with the arrival of Wally Downes the catalyst to overwrite a poor start with a scintillating finish, writes Daniel Marsh at the Cherry Red Records Stadium.

Their opening League One fixture against recently relegated Rotherham was almost the perfect summary of how the season went.

The Dons struggled in a first-half where Rotherham showed their promotion credentials with a dominant performance, however the story of the second period could hardly have been more contrasting, with a resurgent display from the hosts.

But there was to be no triumphant ending like last season, as the Millers struck late on to seal victory against the run of play.

Despite the result, there were positives for the Dons, who more than matched a team who should be in the mix this season and looked the more likely to get the decisive goal as the second half wore on before being undone by a set-piece for the second time in the game.

Another positive for Wimbledon was the performance in goal of youngster Nik Tzanev.

Tzanev – who has had strong showings in pre-season – was given the nod after West Ham loanee Nathan Trott was left out of the matchday squad, Downes confirming post-match that Trott had a groin injury. The New Zealand international certainly grabbed his opportunity with both hands.

Rotherham made a blistering start, and their stirring forward play was lacking the cutting edge that it deserved.

There was a mix of intricate passing and swashbuckling forays down the flanks as the Dons stood firm in the face of a difficult start, but they wouldn’t have without a superb show of agility from Tzanev in the opening 10 minutes.

A whipped cross from the left whistled across the six-yard box and was met with a firm header from Freddie Ladapo and was astoundingly pushed away by the sprawling keeper, a moment which brought Kingsmeadow to its feet.

However, the debutant was picking the ball out of his net 20 minutes later, as Rotherham made their authority count with their first of two goals from set-pieces.

Michael Smith, who had earlier headed wide in a gilt-edged chance from close range, made amends as he diverted a deep corner back across goal for strike-partner Ladapo to finish with ease.

Rotherham continued to look dangerous, although the menacing forays of Kyle Vassell centrally and Matt Olusonde down the right failed to yield the decisive chances that they appeared to threaten.

The interval worked wonders for the Dons, who looked more threatening in the first five minutes of the second half than they had in previous 45. And it was within these opening five minutes, that parity was deservedly restored. A corner from Anthony Hartigan was swung in from the left, with last season’s leading scorer, Joe Pigott, left criminally unmarked to power home a header from the six-yard box to open his account for the new season.

Pigott’s strike stirred the crowd, and suddenly, for all of the dominance and chances in the opening period, the Millers were on the ropes.

Just eight minutes later the turnaround was almost complete, after Will Nightingale hooked the ball down the channel for Folivi, whose low cut-back found Anthony Hartigan, who saw his strike diverted from the unguarded net by some last-ditch defending.

Another burst down the left-hand side from Nesta Guinness-Walker almost led to an identical scenario, his cut-back to Hartigan again thwarted by desperate defending.

However, it was nothing compared to the unbelievable defensive work from Paul Kalambayi, who somehow kept out a point-blank effort from Ladapo after a couple of unfortunate ricochets left the Dons net unguarded.

Paul Warne’s men were not to be denied, however, and they rallied, catching Wimbledon with a late sucker-punch to take all three points back to Yorkshire with a goal which did not cover anyone in Blue in glory.

A whipped delivery from the right-hand side somehow evaded a flurry of bodies in both Blue and Red before being swept weakly home by Clark Robertson at the far-post to restore Rotherham’s lead.

The Dons huffed and puffed for the final few minutes but could find no reply. They can, however, take heart from a much improved second half, as they make the trip up to early league leaders Fleetwood on Saturday.

AFC Wimbledon (3-5-2) Tzanev 7, O’Neill 7, Thomas 6 (Appiah 85), Kalambayi 7, McDonald 6, Guinness-Walker 7, Nightingale 7, Hartigan 6(McLoughlin 80), Reilly 7, Folivi 6(Connolly 83), Pigott 7. Subs not used: McDonnell, Wagstaff, Pinnock, Rudoni

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