By Martin Atherton
After a lumbering and barren performance, MK Dons were taken all the way to penalties to see off National League outfit Eastleigh at Ten Acres.
120 minutes of normal time were not enough for the Dons to break down a resolute Eastleigh defence who stood tall against a side two leagues superior.
The Spitfires enjoyed the best of the opening exchanges, Michael Green bursting through to put a dangerous ball into the box after beating Poole for pace. The hosts then came close again through Sam Smart, though both Lewington and Nicholls were on hand to tidy up.
But Martin’s side soaked up the home outfit’s pressure and finally grew into the game on the 20-minute mark, young Harvie constantly finding himself in acres of space down the left-hand side – the Scot, however, being caught out ahead of play numerous times by an eagled-eye linesman.
Walker, perhaps the Dons’ most electric outlet, came to life as the game progressed, driving at the Eastleigh defence and putting their back line under pressure. Kasumu and Morris connected well as the pressure mounted further, the latter seeing his through-ball narrowly intercepted by an Eastleigh man.
The Dons then won themselves a string of free kicks just outside the area as the interval approached; these efforts taken by Morris and Poole, however, failing to trouble McDonnell in the Eastleigh goal. HT 0-0.
The second half provided more of the same as the Dons’ dominance only magnified, but Martin’s side – as I seem to write too often on here – failed to convert their possession into serious chances created.
Morris went narrowly close at one end – his header smashing against the Eastleigh post after a terrific corner from Lasse Sørensen – whilst the hosts had a rare venture at the other, former Swindon man Ben House narrowly dragging his shot wide of the target.
A host of subs were made as Sorinola, Fraser and Gladwin entered the fray; these changes, however, made little impact as the Dons continued to splutter against their non-League opponents.
Regan Poole then came closest with a rasping shot rattling the crossbar, the Dons finally starting to shoot on sight after just over an hour of avoiding sending efforts in. Alex Wynter had a chance to win it late on for the hosts after being found unmarked three yards out from goal, but the former Crystal Palace man sent his header straight down Nicholls’ throat. FT 0-0.
Extra time ensued, though as the story had played out during normal time, little of not came to fruition. The Dons continued to see much of the ball but failed to put their dominance to good use and couldn’t find a winning goal.
Perhaps the one highlight of the performance was the excellent marshalling of the Eastleigh forwards by the Dons’ back line, O’Hora, Cargill and Lewington all standing strong in the face of any counterattack. The Spitfires did have the odd venture forward; however, little came of them thanks to the Dons’ solidity at the back.
Walker so nearly clinched it in the dying moments – the ‘Boro loanee dancing through both the Eastleigh midfield and defence to find himself one-on-one with McDonnell – but saw his effort magnificently saved by the Eastleigh ‘keeper to keep the score level. ET FT 0-0
Nicholls and Fraser proved to be the heroes of the shootout, the former saving the home side’s initial effort, whilst Fraser stroked home the Dons’ fifth to ensure his side were in Monday’s draw. Gladwin had seen his effort saved by the magnificent McDonnell, though this mattered not after Tom Bearwish smashed his against Nicholls’ crossbar. Dons win on penalties!
Whilst the Dons are in the hat for the next round and now unbeaten in four, the game was yet another damning indictment of their inability to break down sides willing to sit back and take their chances.
Going forward Martin’s side are too predictable, uncreative, and pose little to no threat without 34-year-old Cameron Jerome. With two tough fixtures coming up against Hull City and Sunderland – both of whom flying high in 5th and 6th respectively – the pressure may begin to mount on the Dons’ gaffer if they fail to improve.
But take note of their defensive stability, his side now having only conceded twice in their past five games after that dire outing for the back line at Oxford. Yes, these certainly came against easier opposition, but those three clean sheets will hopefully breed confidence into Lewington, Keogh and co.
On a personal note, I still predict us to very much be a post-Christmas side. I’ve alluded to Plymouth Argyle’s 2017/18 campaign a few times, whereby they started poorly but put together a push towards the play-off places in the latter months. I think we’ll be a bit like that, though perhaps ending closer to mid-table.
Onto Saturday. Come on You Dons!
Eastleigh: McDonnell, Wynter, Boyce, Tomlinson, Smart (Bird ‘105), Payne (Bearwish 105’), Hollands, Green, Miley, House, Smith (Barnett 76’).
Booked: House, Hollands.
MK Dons: Nicholls, Poole, O’Hora (Sorinola 68’), Cargill, Lewington, Harvie (Gladwin 62’), Thompson (Fraser 68’), Kasumu, Sørensen (Bird 96’), Morris, Walker.