MK Dons kept up the pressure on their automatic promotion rivals in League 1 with a third straight win against Bristol Rovers.
Canadian striker Ali Gerba kept up his excellent scoring record at stadiummk with his 10th goal of the season in the first period, before setting up Luke Chadwick for what turned out to be the winner after the break. Rovers defender Steve Elliott made it a nervy finish for Roberto Di Matteo's men when he headed home a Stuart Campbell corner with six minutes to go. But the Dons would hold out to take an important three points from a game they rarely relinquished control of after Gerba's opener.
Again without injured trio Aaron Wilbraham, Sam Baldock and Peter Leven, the Dons were not short on standout performers as they continued push for a place in the Championship.
Few were more impressive than Luke Howell, who produced a man-of-the-match performance that combined both industry and creativity in the middle of the park. Given the nod to start despite Alan Navarro's return from suspension, Howell was busy alongside Stephen Gleeson from the outset. Offering Lewington an outlet with all avenues closed down the left on 25 minutes, the young midfielder quickly shepherded the attack towards Puncheon on the edge of the box.
Puncheon looked crowded out, but he managed to make room for an 18-yard shot that squirted just past the foot of the post. Rovers were offering little going forward - 25-goal hotshot Rickie Lambert seeing a shot deflected wide and a long range-effort fly over - and generally looked like a side playing out the season with nothing to compete for.
The Dons, by contrast, had plenty to chase and it was Gerba's desire to chase it that brought the breakthrough. Byron Anthony dallied needlessly in possession on the edge of his own box, allowing the grafting Gerba to hustle him out of it. Steve Phillips tried to get back into position in the Rovers goal, but it was too late as the Canadian slammed his shot past him from 12 yards.
It could have been two moments later when Gerba and Puncheon combined on the edge of the box to send the goal-scorer clear. Gerba kept his feet despite having his ankles tapped by Elliott, but could only scuff his shot wide with Howell unable to force it home. Puncheon and Gleeson almost opened Rovers up with another dangerous attack as the Dons tried to turn the screw.
Though the visitors did have their best effort of the half just before the break when Jo Kuffour danced between Gleeson and the otherwise-excellent Sean O'Hanlon to draw a flying save from Willy Gueret. The second half started with the Dons on the front foot once more and Puncheon stabbed a toe-punt just wide after good work from Gerba on the edge of the box. But the second goal felt close and when Howell intercepted a poor pass from Joe Jacobson just inside the Dons half, the midfield man started the attack that forced it.
Carrying the ball down the right flank into the space full-back Jacobson had vacated, Howell pointed to space on the edge of the box, urging Gerba to fill it as he clipped the ball into the striker's chest. Gerba pulled it down, spinning in the same movement before jabbing into the path of the arriving Chadwick, who stuck out a leg to prod the ball past Phillips. It could have been more when Gleeson started a counter attack from a Rovers corner, finding Puncheon, via Gerba, whose near post shot was tipped behind by Phillips.
And when a bone-shuddering challenge from Howell on Chris Lines allowed Regan to feed Puncheon inside the box, the on-loan Plymouth man danced round two defenders before seeing his shot saved by Phillips once more. Rovers head coach Paul Trollope made attacking changes with both Darryl Duffy and Craig Disley coming into the action and after Duffy had shot marginally wide from 25 yards,
Disley hooked an opportunist shot just wide on 71 minutes. As the end drew nearer the Dons started to lose their passing game a touch and Duffy was able to eek out another shot that Gueret saved low to his left. And with the visitors' momentum beginning to mount, Campbell's corner from the right was met by the towering Elliott, who headed through a crowd of bodies to find the far corner.
It made for a nervous ending for the home side, who were forced to defend a little frantically in the closing stages as Rovers suddenly awoke. But a couple of long-range efforts from Lambert aside, they were unable to create a notable chance.
MK Dons (4-2-3-1): Gueret; Regan, O'Hanlon, Llera, Lewington (c); Howell, Gleeson; Wright, Puncheon (Navarro 77), Chadwick (Stirling 61); Gerba (Flo 77).
Subs not used: Abbey, Johnson.
Goals: Gerba 29, Chadwick 51. Booked: Regan, Navarro, Gueret.
Bristol Rovers (4-4-2): Phillips; Lescott (Disley 63), Anthony, Elliott, Jacobson; Pipe, Lines, Campbell (c), Hughes; Kuffour (Duffy 64), Lambert.
Subs not used: St Louis-Hamilton, Hinton, Reece. Goals: Elliott 84. Booked: Anthony, Campbell.
Attendance: 10,251 (1,089 away)
Referee: Andy D'Urso (Essex)