MK Dons started their preparations for the League 1 play-offs with a solid performance and a 1-0 win over local rivals Northampton Town at Sixfields. Aaron Wilbraham's 16th goal of the season 11 minutes from the interval coupled with a disciplined team performance lifted Roberto Di Matteo's men back up to third and left the Cobblers still needing a point to ensure their safety.
With a trip to Hereford in wait on the final day, the Dons need only a point to be sure of third spot and a likely semi-final tie with either Scunthorpe United or Tranmere Rovers - avoiding big guns Leeds and Millwall until a potential final. Ironically enough, the win that ensured the Dons the dubious advantage of playing their second leg at home showed all the trademarks of a team better suited to games on the road. Di Matteo's men were solid throughout, restricting Northampton to few clear-cut chances despite some late pressure, while at the other end they were inventive and dangerous.
With the influential Sean O'Hanlon missing through injury, Jude Stirling stepped into the defensive breach and was a Trojan alongside Miguel Llera - showing bravery both in putting his body on the line and trying to pass the ball under increasing pressure. Stirling was one of several outstanding performers in a late defensive effort that hardly looked like it would be necessary as the Dons dominated the opening stages. Wing wizard Jason Puncheon started the ball rolling on 14 minutes, darting inside Danny Jackman on the right flank and unleashing a thumping drive.
Cobblers 'keeper Chris Dunn was unable adjust quickly enough to catch it and neither was Sam Baldock as he tried to convert the rebound. Searching for the point that would have ensured League 1 football next season and taken all the heat of their trip to Leeds this weekend, Northampton looked unsure of whether to get on the attack or play for the draw. Liam Dolman's long throw aside, they looked unlikely to fashion an opening.
Not so at the other end, where Stirling launched a long throw of his own that eventually reached Mark Wright, whose volley was cleared off the line by Jason Crowe. Puncheon twisted his way inside Dolman to see a shot deflected wide as the visitors turned the screw and it was the on-loan Plymouth man who typically carved the decisive opening. Teasing Dolman on the left corner of the area, Puncheon finally darted past him on the outside before screwing the ball back for Wilbraham to sweep home from eight yards.
Simple, but brilliantly effective and the 1,387 Dons fans were rewarded for their short trip up the M1. Having scored the only goal of the game back at stadiummk in August, it was Wilbraham's second winner against Northampton this season. It could have got better moments later when Puncheon and Baldock combined to find Wilbraham on the left flank and the big striker's low cross was just turned wide by a sliding Mark Wright.
For all the Dons' dominance, they might have entered the break on level terms had Luke Guttridge not been so wasteful after Ikechi Anya had teed him up inside the box. But had that gone in, referee Keith Stroud might have looked more favourably on what looked a stonewall penalty as Crowe slid in on Leven after Baldock had set him up in the area. Northampton introduced leading scorer Adebayo Akinfenwa at the break and the former Swansea man would go on to bring the hosts into the game, but not before Baldock had the chance to kill it.
Wilbraham showed terrific touch and vision to pick out Wright on the right flank, whose first-time cross caught Mark Hughes on his heels and allowed Baldock space to shoot. Dunn was not flat-footed though as he plunged superbly to his right to make the block. The Dons did find a way past Dunn again on the hour-mark when Puncheon's superbly-delivered free-kick grazed the head of Llera as it bounced into the net, only for the assistant's flag to rule the effort out.
But as the imposing Akinfenwa started to find his feet, Northampton were given hope. Mark Wright tries to turn a loose ball goalwards. &nbsp; Guttridge was the first to benefit from a knockdown inside the box, only for Carl Regan to block superbly and when Akinfenwa tried to finish the job himself with a header from Anya's cross, Regan was in the way once more. As with any side with 13 away wins, the Dons retained that counter-attacking menace and went close twice when Puncheon's break ended with a shot well saved by Dunn, and substitute Luke Chadwick's snapshot found its way through a crowd of legs and into the 'keeper's arms.
As the clock wound down and the importance of a point started to sink in, Northampton threw bodies forward, including the goalkeeper, in search of an equaliser. Substitute Adam Watts, a former Dons loanee and at Sixfields on loan from Fulham, planted a header wide and Anya saw an effort cleared off the line by Chadwick. But the Dons always looked capable of closing it out and duly tied up a fifth win in six games.
Northampton Town (4-4-2): Dunn; Dolman, Hughes (c) (Watts 81), Crowe, Jackman; Gilligan (Akinfenwa 46), Osman, Guttridge, Holt; Prijovic (Constantine 68), Anya.
Subs not used: Walker, Hodgkiss.
Booked: Holt, Watts.
MK Dons (4-4-2): Gueret, Regan, Stirling, Llera, Lewington (c); Puncheon, Navarro, Leven, Wright (Chadwick 65); Wilbraham, Baldock (Cummings 82).
Subs not used: Abbey, Howell, Flo.
Goals: Wilbraham 34. Booked: Stirling, Navarro.
Attendance: 6,054 (1,387 away)
Referee: Keith Stroud (Hampshire)