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Meldrum's Verdict: MK Dons 0 Cherries 3
THIS result was borne as much from discipline and self-control as it was from the man who showed neither.
Supporters of both sides could point to the sending-off of Ryan Lowe as pivotal to the game, one that was expected to be a scrimmage between two sides pining for League One promotion.
It actually turned out to be a largely one-sided and soulless affair – much like the aesthetically imposing, yet eerie stadium:mk.
But, for as batty and nonsensical as Lowe’s ugly, seemingly premeditated, lunge on Tommy Elphick was, it was not exclusively the reason why Cherries are now third in League One.
Defiance exists in Eddie Howe’s defensive ranks. They will not be moved and not be beaten.
Even with the enforced changes seen in recent weeks, due to Charlie Daniels’ injury and now Elphick’s unfortunate adieu, Howe’s back four have oozed class, dominance and composure.
Dan Seaborne impressed at both left-back and centre-half on Saturday, while Simon Francis continues to threaten in attack as well as dispel the peril of League One’s left-wingers.
Elphick was immense until his substitution. Steve Cook was a towering presence, donning the captain’s armband during the second half. If the ball came near the 18-yard box, he headed it away, time and time again.
Cook was also involved at the other end, his improving long throws yet another weapon in the Cherries armoury. Brett Pitman latched on to one after just three minutes but fired over from inside the Dons penalty area.
A pocket of home support behind keeper David Martin’s goal chanted “MK Army”, but it was back to eerie silence once Lewis Grabban had put Cherries 1-0 up six minutes later.
A poor back pass from Jon Otsemobor was picked up by Grabban and, after rounding Martin, he clipped a left-foot shot into the net from a tight angle.
Dons boss Karl Robinson pestered the fourth official, moving from seat to technical area with hyperactive regularity. Some decisions, perhaps, did not go the way of his side, but Cherries were playing the more attractive, penetrative football.
Further chances for Grabban, who blazed wide just moments after opening the scoring, and Ryan Harley, whose wretched long-range effort almost went out for a throw-in were at either ends of the scale in terms of quality.
Lowe did at least make his presence felt prior to his red card, hassling Shwan Jalal into punching the ball clear after half-an-hour and forcing the goalkeeper to beat away a right-foot shot just before the half-time interval.
Lowe, though, 34 years old and with more than 400 league appearances on his CV, was justifiably sent packing by referee Scott Mathieson after flying in two-footed on Elphick in first-half stoppage time.
It was an abhorrent challenge, seemingly laced with revenge. The pair had grappled earlier in the half, with Elphick indicating he had been stamped on by Lowe.
Howe described the incident as “disgusting”. Francis said it was a “coward’s tackle”. Lowe opted for “outrageous” when issuing an apology in the post-match interviews. They were all correct.
Shock and a fair degree of anger, though, soon turned to jubilance when Pugh made the score 2-0 before half-time.
Matt Ritchie was waiting to come on for Elphick as Martin saved superby from Grabban. The ball ricocheted back to Pugh, however, who burst into the penalty area from the left channel and blasted into the roof of the net.
As the second half reached the midway point, with both Josh McQuoid and Dons substitute Izale McLeod having wasted early chances, Cherries’ dominance and proficiency going forward was greeted by cheers of approval from 1,446 travelling supporters.
Pitman could have added to his hat-trick against Crewe with another. He headed Ritchie’s cross into the arms of Martin and fired over the crossbar having linked nicely with Eunan O’Kane just after the hour. Grabban, too, was denied by Martin.
At the other end, Shaun Williams saw a superb strike come back off the post. McLeod’s blushes were spared by an offside flag as he scuffed the rebound wide from all of four yards.
Cherries were comfortable in perplexing the home side with delicate, intricate passing and slick movement.
As cheers of fluid football approval rang out, Arter let fly from around 25 yards four minutes from time, the ball bending perfectly into the top corner. 3-0 and job done.
Home supporters flooded to the exits as Pitman’s frustrating afternoon was summed up by hitting the crossbar.
Match facts and Echo merit marks
Cherries: (4-4-2) Jalal 7.5; Francis 7.5, Elphick 7.5 (Ritchie, 45), Cook 8.5*, Seaborne 8; McQuoid 7.5 (Hughes, 79), Arter 7.5, O’Kane 7, Pugh 7; Grabban 8 (Tubbs, 86), Pitman 7.5.
Unused subs: Partington, Fletcher, Fogden, Allsop (g/k).
Dons: (4-2-3-1) Martin; Otsemobor, Doumbe (Smith, 63), Williams, Lewington; Potter, Lines (Ismail, 79); Bowditch, Harley, Chicksen (McLeod, h-t); Lowe.
Unused subs: Flanagan, Baldock, Alli.
Sent off: Lowe.
Referee: Scott Mathieson (Cheshire).
Attendance: 9,233 (away fans 1,446).
Echo star man – Steve Cook
In the absence of Tommy Elphick, Cook marshalled Cherries' back four superbly having been handed the captain's armband at half-time.
Strong in the air, Cook was reliable clearing danger, while his distribution out of defence was faultless.
Tested by some direct running from Izale McLeod during the second half, Cook was rock solid and led with unhurried authority as Cherries kept their first clean sheet since January 1.