Crunch clashes between two sides fighting for promotion can often be tight, cagey affairs but this absorbing League Two encounter justified the pre-match hype as Northampton and Wimbledon served up a thrilling, end-to-end spectacle at Sixfields on Tuesday.
There was no holding back from either side as the division’s two most in-form teams went toe-to-toe in a breathless encounter that balanced on a knife edge throughout and could have swung either way.
A total of 32 shots were registered as both sides attacked with regularity and there was no sign of either settling for a point, although that’s how it finished and deservedly so.
Two draws in as many matches represents something of a catastrophe in the context of this barnstorming season for Northampton. It’s not, of course, and with rivals unable to take advantage, Oxford aside, the Cobblers are now in fact a point better off in their quest for promotion having ticked off another two fixtures.
With 16 wins in the last 20 between them, expectations were high for an entertaining contest on Tuesday and the two promotion hopefuls didn’t disappoint as together they conjured up a compelling watch.
Wimbledon looked every inch a side chasing an eighth win in 10 as they matched the league leaders stride for stride in an end-to-end encounter that ebbed and flowed and swung one way and then the other.
Dons particularly enjoyed the space vacated by full-backs David Buchanan and Brendan Moloney whose willingness to get forward allowed the visitors’ menacing strike duo Lyle Taylor and Tom Elliott to exploit the channels and have Zander Diamond and Luke Prosser back-tracking.
The two halves were almost identical in how they developed too, with Dons fast out of the blocks before Northampton rallied, turned the tide and finished strongly.
Wimbledon’s pace and power on the break caused headaches all evening and that threat was evident from as early as the second minute when Elliott broke free down the right and was thwarted by Adam Smith before the Cobblers keeper did likewise from Taylor moments later.
Northampton saw more of the ball was the half progressed, though, and slowly but surely wrestled control as only a fine save from Kelle Roos denied James Collins’ header before, six minutes later and on the stroke of half-time, John-Joe O’Toole turned home Joel Byrom’s corner to give Northampton what seemed a crucial lead.
But, as in the first, Wimbledon came out all guns blazing after half-time as Paul Robinson was denied by Smith and while Prosser had a header cleared off the line at the other end, Taylor’s equaliser felt a matter of time.
It arrived just after the hour-mark and came courtesy of a rare error of judgement by Diamond who let the ball bounce and in doing so allowed Taylor to nip in, burst through and finish into the top corner.
That goal signalled the start of a 10-minute spell where the visitors laid siege to the home goal, pinning Northampton back with wave after wave of attacking, yet, somehow, the Cobblers survived.
Robinson headed against the post from a matter of yards, Elliott was twice unable to find the target when well-placed and Andy Barcham was denied by an alert Smith who raced off his line to block.
Northampton gradually stemmed the tide and, aided by the introduction of John Marquis and a tactical switch to 4-4-2, they regained an element of control as O’Toole and Byrom, who had been overrun at times, were able to get on the ball more and wrestle back the initiative.
The final 10 minutes were played almost exclusively in Wimbledon’s half but for all their pressure, clear-cut chances were at a premium as the visitors, to their credit, defended manfully while also retaining the threat of their pace on the break, with the best opportunities falling to the wrong men in Diamond and Prosser although Marquis had a strong penalty shout turned down after Collins had gone close to putting the Cobblers back in front.
Ultimately, a draw accurately reflected a high quality contest between two sides who could well be playing League One football next season.
Wimbledon may feel hard done by not to have come away with all three points having created a number of excellent chances but Neal Ardley can take great solace in the fact his side have pushed Northampton as hard as any other League Two outfit this season, becoming the first team to play the Cobbles twice and not be on the losing side.
For Northampton, it’s another step in the right direction and another tricky fixture chalked off.
How they rated...
Adam Smith - One of his busier games. Couple of comfortable saves early on followed by a sharp stop from Barcham in the second half, however might be a touch disappointed not to have got a stronger hand to Taylor’s goal... 7
Brendan Moloney - Got forward with regularity, having a couple of pops from distance well blocked, but that did leave space for Wimbledon to exploit... 7
Zander Diamond - Had coped relatively well with Wimbledon’s attacking threat up until the goal when he misread the bounce of the ball and allowed Taylor to nip in... 6
Luke Prosser - Encouraging full debut from the Southend man who did little wrong up against a dangerous strike force in the shape of Taylor and Elliott, including several important blocks and interceptions... 7 CHRON STAR MAN
David Buchanan - Never lets you down as the stand-in skipper added another excellent 90 minutes to his growing collection... 7
John-Joe O’Toole - His influence evident from an early stage although Wimbledon gave him little time on the ball. Closing in on double figures for the season having bagged his eighth. Avoided that dreaded 10th booking too... 7
Joel Byrom - Overrun at times but really came to the fore late on when he started to dictate the game with his full range of passing on show... 7
Lawson D’Ath - Sloppy in possession early on but grew in confidence and belief. Worked tirelessly too... 7
Nicky Adams - Promising first half display was followed by a less influential second. Put in a couple of wicked crosses, one of which almost yielded a goal but for a fine Roos save... 7
Ricky Holmes - Tightly-marked by Dons who stifled his impact on the game. Was never really able to cut loose despite his best efforts... 7
James Collins - Had a first-half header brilliantly saved but should have done better with a late chance... 6
John Marquis - 7