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Match Preview: AFC Wimbledon v Rochdale
Tuesday, 27th Apr 2021 10:20 by AtThePeake

In what could be one of the biggest games played in Brian Barry-Murphy’s tenure thus far, Dale head to the capital tonight to take on relegation rivals AFC Wimbledon.

Date: Tuesday 27th April
Kick-off: 7.00pm
Venue: Plough Lane
They say it’s the hope that kills you, but I’m sure we’d all rather be heading into Tuesday night’s huge fixture with AFC Wimbledon with the hope that Dale have given us over the last few weeks than the hopelessness felt prior to the last four games.

After slipping to a 1-0 defeat at Fleetwood Town earlier in the month in a lacklustre display, it seemed Dale’s hopes of escaping the relegation zone were all but over, but since then the team have picked up a trio of consecutive home wins (having previously gone six months without winning at Spotland) and kept the dream alive with a draw at Crewe Alexandra over the weekend.

Although the first of those three home wins came against a Swindon Town outfit who looked completely devoid of confidence and cohesion, Dale did raise their game to then overcome Accrington Stanley before arguably their best home performance of the season secured a 1-0 victory over play-off chasing Blackpool last Tuesday night.

Unfortunately, victories for seemingly ever other team in the relegation fight meant that the victory over the Seasiders actually did little to drag Dale any closer to survival. It did however, keep them in the fight and more of the same never-say-die attitude was on show at Gresty Road on Saturday afternoon.

Having been the better side for the majority of the game in Cheshire without really creating any clear cut chances, it seemed that even the point had slipped away from Dale in injury time when Charlie Kirk flung himself to the floor under no contact from Aaron Morley in the box.

After dusting himself down and dispatching the penalty, Kirk seemed to have extinguished Dale’s hopes of staying within real touching distance of escaping the bottom four and he even strolled off the pitch at a snail’s pace when he was withdrawn a few moments later, perhaps hell-bent on ensuring he didn’t have to play against the club he may have just helped to relegate a few moments earlier.

Dale weren’t done yet though and that man Done was Dale’s hero just a few moments later when he latched onto a beautifully weighted through-ball from Conor Shaugnessy to poke home a 97th minute equaliser and send living rooms across the borough into raptures and quickly checking their phones for results elsewhere in League One.

Draws also for AFC Wimbledon, Wigan Athletic and Northampton Town again meant that the picture hadn’t really changed for Brian Barry-Murphy’s men and so they head to their first ever fixture at the new Plough Lane with the current league situation looking like this.

19th - Wimbledon - P43 Pts - 49
20th - Wigan - P44 - Pts - 48
21st - Northampton P44 - Pts - 44
22nd - Rochdale - P43 - Pts - 43

So it seems fair to call this game the last chance saloon for Dale. A draw would leave the side five points away from safety with just two games remaining and although at this time they have a slightly better goal difference than Wigan, the six points and worse goal difference than Wimbledon would feel nigh-on impossible to catch while the Latics would need to win just one of their remaining two games or hope Dale failed to win either of theirs to stay safe.

Taking that into account, to call this a must-win fixture seems realistic. Relegation won’t be mathematically confirmed without the three points, but it will at least feel like an inevitability with time running out - even if the Dons do face two sides who need the points in their respective chases for play-off positions in Lincoln City and Portsmouth in their final two games.

Wigan face title-chasing Hull City in their next game on Saturday before playing already-relegated Swindon Town on the final day, while Dale will face out-of-form Doncaster Rovers before taking on an MK Dons outfit that could still be in with an outside chance of gatecrashing the play-offs on the final day of the season.

But in reality, all of that will be irrelevant if Dale fail to take three points here. Over to you, Brian and the boys.

It seems remarkable in a way that both Dale and AFC Wimbledon have managed to cling onto their League One status over the last few years given that both teams appear to have been locked in a perpetual relegation battle since the 2017/2018 campaign.

That was the season in which Joe Thompson’s goal against Charlton Athletic on the final day of the season kept Keith Hill’s Dale side in League One and the Dons finished just two places above us that season - and they’ve actually finished just one place above the relegation zone in each of the last two third-tier campaigns.

They were perhaps slightly lucky last season (as were Dale) to have finished in the bottom six of the table but to have escape relegation on Points Per Game, particularly with only three teams being relegated due to the expulsion of Bury from the league at the start of the season.

And again, this year the two sides find themselves battling it out to remain in League One next season, this time seemingly scrapping alongside Wigan Athletic to avoid the final relegation spot with Swindon Town and Bristol Rovers already down and Northampton Town needing a spectacular turnaround in their final two games to clamber out of the bottom four.

Much has been made of managerial changes and appointments at the bottom of the League One table this season, but Wimbledon are one of the teams who appear to have profited from a switch in the dugout. Glynn Hodges was replaced by Mark Robinson in February, a man who has been at the club since 2004 serving in a variety of different background roles before finally taking the reins this term.

After picking up wins over Wigan and Gillingham early on, it seemed that the Dons had become the league's draw experts in March as they tied five out of six games during the month but they have reached the final stages of the season with a remarkable burst of form and head into this pivotal match having won 13 of the last available 15 points in the league.

That run has included thumping wins over Accrington Stanley, Ipswich Town and Swindon Town, all by three or more goals, so confidence is clearly high - but they know that a draw is likely to be enough to keep the Dale's hopes of surviving the bottom four at bay so they could adopt a more defensive approach in this game after a clean sheet in their draw at Portman Road this Saturday.

The Dons always seem able to produce talented youngsters to add to their roster and this year, midfielder Ryan Longman and Jack Rudoni have been the stand-out duo, while long-serving defender Will Nightingale has proved to be a calming influence at the centre of defence.

There can be no doubt who the real danger man is in attack though. With 18 league goals to his name so far this season, including four in his last five, the Dale defence will have a job on their hands in keeping powerful striker Joe Piggott quiet in this one.

Crewe Alexandra (a) - DRAW
Blackpool (h) - WIN
Accrington Stanley (h) - WIN
Swindon Town (h) - WIN
Fleetwood Town (a) - LOSS

AFC Wimbledon:
Ipswich Town (a) - DRAW
Oxford United (h) - WIN
Swindon Town (h) - WIN
Ipswich Town (h) - WIN
Accrington Stanley (a) - WIN
AFC Wimbledon: 6
Draw: 4
Rochdale: 2

17 Mar 2018 - Rochdale 1-1 AFC Wimbledon - League One
08 Dec 2018 - AFC Wimbledon 1-1 Rochdale - League One
19 Feb 2019 - Rochdale 3-4 AFC Wimbledon - League One
05 Oct 2019 - AFC Wimbledon 3-2 Rochdale - League One
21 Nov 2020 - Rochdale 0-1 AFC Wimbledon - League One

Photo: Action Images

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