MK Dons' League 1 destiny will be decided by the play-offs after a home defeat to Walsall ended their hopes of catching second-placed Peterborough.
Jabo Ibehre's clinical strike just after the hour-mark was enough to condemn the Dons to their seventh home defeat of the season and seal Posh's promotion following their 1-0 win at Colchester. But despite falling short of a second successive automatic promotion, the Dons can be proud of their achievements already this term - securing a seat the exciting end-of-season shoot-out less than a year after promotion from League 2.
Though they struggled to find the slick rhythm that had seen them win their last four games, they managed a late rally against the Saddlers, but found goalkeeper Clayton Ince in inspired form. Ince made outstanding saves from Sam Baldock, Jason Puncheon and substitute Peter Leven late-on, as well as an incredible stop from former Saddler Mark Wright, as Walsall showed no let-up despite nothing riding on their remaining League 1 games.
The Dons were dealt further blows ahead of their now-forthcoming play-off campaign when both Sean O'Hanlon and Stephen Gleeson were forced off through injury. A genuine sense of belief seemed to radiate from stadiummk in the build-up to kick-off - the buzz suggesting Dons would win and Colchester could do them a favour.
Even blow of striker Ali Gerba's absence through injury was softened by the return of Leven and Aaron Wilbraham from knocks. But it was Norwegian veteran Tore Andre Flo who was picked to partner Baldock in attack, making his first Dons start since joining the Club in November, with Leven and Wilbraham only considered fit enough for the bench.
The former Chelsea man looked like causing problems for Walsall early-on - climbing high to win long balls forward and linking up well with Baldock when afforded the space. But the Dons looked unusually off the pace, short on the attacking inspiration that had seen them cruise to four successive wins and in need of a lift to get themselves going. Walsall, for the main part, were no more effective - packing out the midfield and making a scrappy game for the 12,094 that saw it.
But if there was a threat in their ranks it was the muscular Ibehre, who held the ball up superbly at times despite close attention from O'Hanlon and Miguel Llera. Baldock managed to engineer the first half-opening for Flo on 18 minutes - beating Manny Smith to a lost cause down the right before heading the bouncing ball into Flo's path only for his volley to skew straight into Ince's hands.
O'Hanlon's problems began 20 minutes in when he required treatment for a knock to his knee, but Ibehre showed the Dons would need two fully-fit centre-halves when he spun superbly six minutes later to lash a shot just past Willy Gueret's post. Jude Stirling came on to replace the Dons vice-skipper, but the impetus was still lacking and a Flo header over from Wright's corner was about as close as the home side came before the break.
With Wilbraham, Leven and Luke Chadwick waiting in the wings and Peterborough leading at the interval, it looked a matter of time before the Dons threw caution to the wind. With no breakthrough 17 minutes into the second period, leading scorer Wilbraham was called for, but it was Walsall who snatched the advantage as the Dons started to push on.
Anthony Gerrard came flying questionably through the back of Wilbraham, sending his header up towards Ibehre, who found himself one-on-one with Stirling. Ibehre's turn was clever, his aim was true and he drilled a shot low past Gueret for his 10th goal of the season on 61 minutes. A collective feeling of concern swept through the stadium, though the Dons fans did their best to rouse the team into a response and the players responded.
Ince dropped low to save Baldock's shot from a tight angle and then gathered a Puncheon drive at the second attempt within minutes of Ibehre's opener, but the pressure rarely felt concerted enough. Di Matteo threw on another big gun in Leven, who got himself right in the thick of things and looked as likely as anyone to fashion an opening. But Ince was growing in confidence and, having been let off when Baldock just failed to connect with a dangerous Puncheon cross, the Trinidad and Tobago international produced the pick of a wonderful string of saves with 14 minutes left.
Puncheon again crafted space down the left, sending a dipping, early ball into the box. Baldock may have got a feint touch on it, but Wright's instinctive header as the ball bounced up should have been firm enough. Ince though, was having one of those days, and denied his former team-mate with a block from point-blank range. Dons refused to give up the ghost and when Llera's free-kick was blocked as far as Leven, the former Chesterfield man saw a stinging 30-yard drive pushed round the post.
And when Puncheon danced infield onto his favoured left foot from a Gleeson pass out wide, Ince was yet again equal to the shot as he blocked by the foot of his post. Baldock had one last throw of the dice in the closing minutes when his well-struck free-kick was beaten away by the inspired Ince - who will be owed a drink or two by the celebrating Peterborough players.
For the Dons it will be the play-offs, though they will wait uncomfortably for news on O'Hanlon and Gleeson, who was stretched off in stoppage time after a challenge from Troy Deeney.
MK Dons (4-4-2): Gueret; Regan, O'Hanlon (Stirling 30), Llera, Lewington (c); Wright, Gleeson, Howell (Leven 73), Puncheon; Baldock, Flo (Wilbraham 57).
Subs not used: Abbey, Chadwick.
Walsall (4-3-1-2): Ince; Weston, Smith, Gerrard, Palmer; Mattis, Hughes (c) (Davies 83), Zaaboub; Bradley (Nicholls 59); Ibehre (Taundry 70), Deeney.
Subs not used: Gilmartin, Boertien.
Goals: Ibehre 61
Booked: Zaaboub, Mattis, Gerrard.
Attendance: 12,094 (663 away)
Referee: Karl Evans (Greater Manchester)