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  • Writer's pictureBy Dan Evans

Wimbledon denied a miracle but show they are the real deal in Stamford Bridge defeat

It is hard to know exactly when the league table stops telling lies and starts resembling something bordering on the truth, but sometimes just a single performance can validate every assumption and half-baked theory it supposes – even if it comes in the cup.

Five league games and an impressive Carabao giant killing was surely not enough to claim a Wimbledon side that only won two of the final 23 to end last season was entirely transformed, but in narrowly being denied a famous cup triumph at Stamford Bridge, the Dons showed everything that has been good about them so far this season and more.

Even though it took until their third league game to pick up a win and a squad that has welcomed 10 new additions and counting is still taking shape, Johnnie Jackson’s side have posted strong performances backed up by points on the board. The change of mood around the club is impossible not to notice.

“I always get asked about last season but we never talk about,” said Jackson when questioned post-match about how he has masterminded the turnaround, evidently not for the first time. “It’s a totally different team, it’s got a freshness about it. It’s about time we put a line under that.”

The most frustrating thing for Jackson, who looked and sounded entirely revitalised as he directed his team from the away dugout, will be that it was only a pair of mistakes that denied Wimbledon a first win at Stamford Bridge since 1996.

“I think we pushed them all of the way and gave them a proper game,” was the manager’s assessment of the night. “I’ve been saying all week that we weren’t just coming for a day out, and I don’t think we’ve disappointed on that. I have to be proud of everyone.”

Winning at Chelsea would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago when Jackson and his team had not won away from home across the entire calendar year. Organisation has been the bedrock of the improved start to the new season. The Dons already have three clean sheets to their name this term, with a new-look backline well protected by the familiar face of Jake Reeves in front of them.

Reeves, who has been made captain after returning to the club in the summer, was missing for this trip to Stamford Bridge, giving 18-year-old Morgan Williams a full professional debut in the most daunting of circumstances. But he thrived under the Premier League lights, regularly snuffing out Chelsea attacks on the occasions they broke through the massed ranks and not looking out of place when Enzo Fernandes and Moises Caicedo were on the field.

“The kid was outstanding,” Jackson said of a teenager who already looks destined to be a favourite among fans. “He hasn’t had many opportunities yet, but he did enough in pre-season that I had the confidence to start him here. What a place to make your full debut.”

It was the gameplan that kept Wimbledon competitive though. With Jackson conducting almost every one of his players movements from his technical area, the gaps between defence and midfield were practically non-existent in the first half. Whenever Chelsea did find an inch of space, Williams or an equally willing team-mate was there to clear the danger.

Chelsea have of course undertaken their own rebuild over the summer, but Wimbledon’s stubbornness looked likely to halt the momentum built by a weekend dismantling of Luton. Captain for the night Conor Gallagher lost the ball and conceded a free-kick in his own half, allowing the sort of calamity that has encapsulated their past 12 months to ensue.

Harry Pell was wiped out by Robert Sanchez as he attacked James Tilley’s free-kick. It was precisely the mistake Wimbledon had been waiting for and Tilley, who has assumed penalty taking duties following a pair of early-season misses from Ali Al-Hamadi, blasted his spot-kick down the middle beyond Sanchez. The away following of more than 4,000 had already been in full voice from kick-off but they truly lost themselves when Tilley’s ferocious effort hit the net.

The adrenaline that only the threat of yet another potential embarrassment can bring sparked Chelsea into life. Wimbledon enjoyed 26 glorious minutes of leading at the home of the two-time European champions. The milestone of surviving until half-time was just moments away.

But then Chelsea offered a flash of their quality. Noni Madueke turned Ryan Johnson on the far touchline and was brought down by the desperate challenge of Alex Pearce. Madueke scored from 12 yards, sparking a previously unforeseen panic among Wimbledon’s backline that was only intensified by the half-time introduction of striker Nicolas Jackson.

It was the Senegalese international who forced Alex Bass into his first save of the night on 48 minutes, and as Chelsea brought on more than £200million worth of midfield talent in Fernandez and Caicedo, there could surely only be one winner. “Their manager is probably hoping he wouldn’t have to use them,” were Jackson’s thoughts on Mauricio Pochettino’s decision to empty his bench, and it could hardly have better summed up his team’s relentless desire to pull off the unthinkable.

The Dons rallied again midway through the second half, regaining their composure and finding ways to challenge a youthful Chelsea defence once Al-Hamadi was introduced from a Wimbledon bench that cost no more than the undisclosed figure paid for Ryan McClean from non-league Hereford and a nominal fee given to Portsmouth for veteran Lee Brown nearly 18 months ago.

Fernandez began to fire in efforts from range as the visiting defence settled. Chelsea were frustrated and Wimbledon waited for just a break of the ball or a set-piece they could capitalise on once more. Al-Hamadi passed up a pair of the sort of half-chances that he was turning to gold in the second half of last season. However, a break did eventually arrive and it was not in favour of the underdogs.

Bass, who had gone from untested to invincible in the first 30 minutes of the second period, was at fault, firing a simple clearance into Chelsea’s Ian Maatsen before the ball cruelly bounced off Joe Lewis and into the path of Fernandez to slot into an unguarded net.

“We win or lose together. It’s never about finger pointing or blame,” said Jackson. “He’s (Bass) been outstanding since he’s come to us. It’s unfortunate that as a goalie when you make a mistake more often than not it ends up in a goal conceded. Players make mistakes up the pitch all of the time and don’t get punished.”

Given seven minutes of injury time, Wimbledon had a full 20 to muster a response, but the energy they had invested in what had come before, combined with the players Chelsea now had on the field, meant they were not able to truly trouble Sanchez again.

Their supporters never stopped believing though, and although they were not rewarded with an equaliser and penalties, Jackson leading all of his players and his entire backroom staff to thank them at full-time was evidence of a bond that has only emerged this season. “You can tell how behind this team they are,” he said. “The players give everything and they can see that”.

Wimbledon fell just short of pulling off the impossible; overcoming financial disparity and supposed talent deficiencies to push Chelsea to the limit. They are now out of the League Cup, but this night and this performance was as clear a sign as league points on the board and promising early season wins at Colchester and Sutton that they are heading in a positive direction.


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