A dominant first half and a Leon McDowall second-half strike were enough to guarantee the Dons all three points against a frankly poor Croydon side. But as both Jay Conroy and Richard Butler were taken off in the opening period, Dave Anderson?s injury woes deepened. He will also be denied the services of Ryan Gray for a period of suspension, as the midfielder became the first Don to see red this season for his part in a late scuffle.
The manager made several changes to his line-up from the off. Jake Cole wasn?t cleared to play with his ongoing finger injury, with Paul Smith lining up in goal, and Steve Butler and Martin Randall were not deemed fit enough for a place in the 16. New signing Andrew Martin made his home debut. Chris Gell took the captain?s armband.
Defending best described as dithering gave the Dons some early opportunities. Lazy play from a centre back allowed Richard Butler to dispossess him. Andrew Martin tried to squeeze a shot in from close range, but the ball was hacked behind.
But the respite was only brief and as the resultant corner came over, no-one from either side could get a header on the ball. It dropped to the most unlikely of scorers, as Jon-Barrie Bates swivelled to direct a low first time shot into the bottom left hand corner of the net for an early lead.
Croydon had their backs to the wall and only two good saves prevented the Dons adding a second within the first ten minutes. First a Mark Cooper header was deflected goalwards by a defender?s back and Berger clawed it over. Then he had to be alert to tip over a Bates header on the bounce. From yet another corner, the ball fell to Bates again and his shot went narrowly over the bar.
Bates then won the ball well and fed Rob Ursell. His low pass found Andrew Martin free in the area and the striker got a good shot away, but Berger dived to save well and Bates couldn?t collect the rebound.
Richard Butler was forced off by injury and was replaced by Leon McDowall after just 14 minutes. Worse was to follow when Jay Conroy was cleared into touch along with the ball on the right wing. After a long time on the ground, he was eventually carried off on a stretcher, with Steve Gibson coming on to replace him as Dave Anderson was forced into making two changes within 22 minutes.
The two changes understandably knocked the Dons out of their stride somewhat, but Croydon continued to look vulnerable at the back. McDowall did his best to liven things up and was denied by a last ditch challenge after exchanging passes with Ryan Gray.
But it was his strike partner who doubled the advantage, after a great swift break. Gray flew up the wing and laid the ball back to Ursell. He passed to Mark Jones, who curled a pinpoint cross into the box. Martin dived to head past Berger and open his Dons account.
Still the Dons kept coming. Ursell had a drive blocked and Gell?s follow-up was deflected wide. Lusengo lunged despairingly to hack down Gray and was booked for his pains. Martin tried to direct the free-kick goalwards but it was blocked behind for yet another corner, which came to nothing.
Gray then crossed into the box after good work by Ursell and McDowall ghosted in to send a header just wide. Gray then nearly curled two corners straight in with the advantage of the breeeze, but on both occasions Berger just did enough. Both Croydon centre-backs then managed extravagant air-kicks as the spirit of Viking Greenford seemed to possess the away defence, but Berger was able to clear. After four minutes of injury time, the referee brought the first half to a satisfactory conclusion.
The second half was of much less interest, with few incidents of note. It started in a low key fashion. Martin sent a free header tamely at the keeper from a Gibson cross, and the Dons man was then booked for a challenge on Ikpa on the halfway line.
Just as it seemed everyone had settled into a total torpor, Leon McDowall woke the match up with an extremely well-taken goal. Ursell broke on the left wing and crossed for McDowall. The striker had plenty left to do, but controlled the ball well, used his strength to hold off the defender and then sent a precise shot past Berger and into the bottom corner for 3-0.
Berger then got down to palm a low Ursell drive behind for another corner, but the near post low effort was easily cleared. At the other end, Smith emerged from goal and took two attempts to send a through ball out of play, so the throw-in sent the ball back into play with the Dons goalkeeper still haring back to his area. But Croydon were unable to capitalise.
With four minutes left and the game petering to a soporific conclusion, a scuffle broke out on the far side by the dugouts. Punches appeared to be thrown and, when the dust settled, both Lusengo and Gray were shown straight red cards.
In injury time Ursell sent a low ball across the face of goal, but no-one could get the decisive touch. Smith then came out his goal at a rate of knots to head clear and knock the striker down in the process.
And that was that. In all honesty, the Dons weren?t at their best, but as happened at times in the CCL, were always comfortable against insipid opponents. Three more points closer to the title.