Posh are lucky to still be in with a chance of making the playoff final after putting in an abject performance against an impressive MK Dons side at Stadium MK.
The wait was finally over. Hoards of Posh fans had invaded Stadium MK and there was a real sense of nerves before the game. It had been a long time since Posh had been in a playoff situation. Many fans that were there had not experienced it before. Ferguson trusted his usual Posh starting line-up to cope with the pressure though. There were no real tactical surprises in his selection – Posh were there to play to their strengths: attack. Nathaniel Mendez-Laing continued up-front partnering Craig Mackail-Smith whilst Lee Tomlin dropped back onto the right prong of the central midfield pairing, alongside Tommy Rowe.
At the start of playoff campaigns you want your team to be able to settle down, have some sustained possession and grow into a match. For Peterborough, though, it started in the worst possible circumstances. Charlie Lee and Joe Lewis both attempted to get to the same ball and ended up colliding with each other. It seemed like a fairly innocuous collisions but both players stayed down, clutching their knees and when they finally did return to their feet neither seemed comfortable. This was not start that Posh would have wanted.
A few moments later, it was. After Mark Little had exchanged passes down the right hand side he collected the ball and ran past Dean Lewington. In these positions Little can often be susceptible to rushing his final ball but this time he cut the ball back to Mendez-Laing, who was free inside the area, the Wolves loanee hit the ball first time but the shot was saved by David Martin, the hero when the sides met in the league at Stadium: MK, who stretched out a right arm to palm the ball clear. He may have thought the danger was clear but CRAIG MACKAIL-SMITH has been in deadly form this season and when you are on form chances like this seem to fall to you. With an open goal Mackail-Smith just had to apply the finishing touches to give Posh an early advantage.
The goal had left everyone stunned. In truth the Posh players did not look like they were expecting to be in front so early. But the goal had given them the confidence to go on in search of more. MK were sticking to their principles and playing passing football but they were not looking confident and had been guilty of giving possession away cheaply in the early stages. The hosts were almost made to pay an even heavier price for their sluggish start too. George Boyd tried his luck from range but a routine stop from Martin kept him out before Mackail-Smith was released by Mendez-Laing, after an excellent run. Letting the ball run across his body Mackail-Smith had space for the shot and as it bobbled up it sat nicely for him to it. With his weaker foot he smashed the ball goalwards but didn’t manage to find the target.
MK Dons were really struggling to react to the goal they had conceded and Lee Tomlin spotted his opportunity to test Martin after a poor pass from Sean O’Hanlon. The long-range drive from Tomlin was well struck and the MK Dons ‘keeper did very well to hold onto the ball to stop the onrushing Mendez-Laing having a chance to double the lead.
The hosts needed a spark. Something to give them hope. Anything to settle the nerves. And with almost half an hour played they did get this. After some intricate passing on the edge of the Peterborough area saw Mathias Doumbe, who was lucky to still be on the pitch after a two footed lunge on Mendez-Laing, allowed the space to move forward and attack Sam Baldock sensed danger. Moving to the near post he was in space and Doumbe’s low pass seemed to be heading straight into his path. Baldock stretched, sliding to make contact with the ball but in the end could only make a slight deviation to the balls path and it went all the way through the Posh box.
With this chance the game changed. All of a sudden MK Dons had belief and their play was penning Posh back inside their own half. With the momentum MK went in search of the equaliser. And their chances were further strengthened when Gabriel Zakuani had to substituted off after seemingly aggravating a shoulder injury that has troubled him all season. Kelvin Langmead was his replacement.
The hosts were well and truly on top now and for Posh it was a question of making it to half-time with their lead still intact. MK Dons were posing Posh a threat from set-pieces, as well as in open play, and when Dean Lewington’s corner was met by the head of O’Hanlon chaos ensued. With the ball surrounded by players Mathias Doumbe managed to get his head to it but a fantastic, point-blank save from Lewis kept the score level.
It was not long before the ‘keeper was called into action again either. Again a set-piece wasn’t cleared and as the ball dropped to Doumbe, in close proxamity to the goal, he flicked a leg at it. As the ball looped up, taking a deflection off Lewis’ shoulder in the process, it seemed that the equaliser had came but the bar intervened, deflecting the ball out for another MK Dons corner.
As the half-time whistle went Posh had rode their luck to still be level. They didn’t deserve the lead they had and if their performances were not improved then trouble seemed imminent. As the half went on MK’s dominance on proceedings became more and more evident. Ferguson needed to see an improvement.
The half-time break would have given Darren Ferguson a chance to reorganise his side for the second half. Unfortunately Joe Lewis’ injury was too severe for him to continue and Paul Jones had to be introduced. 2 of Posh’s back 5 had already had to be changed and, in a defence that is notorious for leaking goals, this was the exact thing that Ferguson would have wanted to avoid at this stage of the season. The task of reorganising the team had just grown even harder.
EXCEPTIONAL: Mark Little was in a minority of blue shirted players that came out of the game with any credit.
The second half could hardly have started in a worse fashion for Posh. Dean Lewington put over a fairly hopeful deep cross to the back post but Tommy Rowe was positioned well. Inexplicably though he headed the ball back across goal. Jones rushed out to collect, fumbled and tripped over as the ball feel to DANIEL POWELL. Even a despairing Ryan Bennett could not keep the ball from heading over the line.
It was a massive blow. Ferguson’s team talk had been undone and MK Dons now had the bit between their teeth. Surging forward they went in search of more and did not need to wait long to get the lead they wanted either. Tommy Rowe gave away a cheap foul 30 yards out, allowing SAM BALDOCK a shot on goal from range. It was hardly a dangerous position in normal circumstances. Baldock, however, drew aim, hopeful that the Peterborough United wall would break up. It did. The ball went under and through a wall that was too scared to let it hit them and rocketed into the far corner. MK Dons had turned it around in much quicker circumstances than anyone would have predicted. Karl Robinson and his MK side beamed. Ferguson realised he had an almost impossible task to get his side back into this game now.
MK Dons were breaking through Posh’s defence at will now and the away side were panicking. Sloppy in possession and leaving too many gaps at the back, Posh were crumbling under the pressure. An incisive pass to from Stephen Gleeson allowed Daniel Powell to sprint forward but Lee tracked him well. However, referee Jon Moss decided that it was a foul, booking Lee in the process.
If things weren’t bad enough for the visitors now they were about to get worse. Much worse. Posh’s defences woes had been highlighted already in the second half and they were about to come to the fore once more. After failing to clear the ball after a set-piece Adam Clayton collected it before slotting an excellent pass into the feet of ANGELO BALANTA. A great first touch took him past, Mark Little before he hammered the ball beyond Jones and into the net to give MK Dons and unassailable lead. Paul Jones may have felt that he could have done better in the Posh goal but some of the defending going on in front of him was criminal.
Rattled, Posh tried to react but their passing wasn’t up its normal standard. Their pressing game was poor. The attacking movement was virtually non-existent. This wasn’t the Posh that had scored 106 league goals. This was the Posh that had conceded 75 of them. Still, a set-piece provide them with a chance and when the ball sat up inside the box a collection of players were trying to gain control. It was impossible. Scrambling, the ball finally sat up. David Ball, who had just got into the action replacing Mendez-Laing, turned to ball goalwards but somehow Luke Chadwick was positioned on the line to block the shot and hack the ball away.
Posh’s misery hadn’t stopped yet. Just after Ferguson had introduced his third sub, right on cue, Charlie Lee scythed down Daniel Powell as he looked to burst clear. The referee was left with little choice but to send the left-back down the tunnel. Damage limitation was the strategy now. Posh’s playoff campaign was looking in danger before it had already begun. And moments later Sam Baldock had the chance to end it. Finding space inside the area, Baldock was clean-through on goal. However, he rushed at the shot, perhaps realising the enormity of it, and he dragged it wide of the mark.
It was the signal that Peterborough’s luck had changed. David Ball had provided some energy, now positioned on the right side of midfield, and his mazy run saw him go free in the area before his shot, which looked destined for the far corner, went inches wide. Something to provide hope. And it wasn’t long before this hope turned into real belief.
Mark Little collected the ball just outside his own area and had very little options ahead of him. Head down, he carried the ball forward outpacing Adam Clayton before finding himself one-on-one with Stephen Gleeson. He surged past him, creating space to attack and he did just that. Rampaging forward Little got to the edge of the area before trying to play the ball across goal. He tripped, clipping his own heels and stubbing the floor. The referee saw it differently though. He jogged forward, pondered and pointed to the spot. To add insult to MK’s injuries, after discussions with his linesman, he proceeded to send Gleeson off. It was a ludicrously bad decision but it was one that provided Posh with a lifeline. Peterborough’s chances rested on this kick. One spot kick to save them. GRANT MCCANN was the coolest man in the stadium though and when Martin dived early he simply slotted the ball in the other direction and into the back of the net.
Mackail-Smith almost equalised moments later but for Posh, at the full-time whistle, this represented a decent result. MK would have considered themselves pleased with the win, putting them in position A, but would have felt they deserved more than a one goal advantage.
Make no mistake about it we were nowhere near good enough yesterday. We lacked the desire to win the game and MK Dons deserved more. We got lucky. On Thursday we cannot perform like that again, nor can we if we make the final. That, at this stage of the season, is nothing other than unacceptable.
Mark Little was exceptional but his effort and desire was not recreated by many other members of the squad and some of them need to seriously ask themselves how much they want to be promoted after that display. Too many of them either didn’t put enough effort in or bottled it on the big occasion.
It’s time to forget about that though. We go to London Road needing a win. Nothing more, nothing less. A win will give us a chance – even if we go through extra-time or a dreaded penalty shoot-out – and before the playoffs started you would have backed us to win at home. It may not be enough but if we show effort, desire and commitment to the shirt it is forgivable if we do not win. If we play like that again it is unforgiveable. If ever there was a must win game this is it. Come on Boro!
Up The Posh.