MK Dons were beaten 3-1 by Plymouth Argyle in their New Year’s Day meeting with the league-leaders at Home Park.
Plymouth took a fourth-minute lead through James Wilson but Mark Jackson’s side fought back to level through Nathan Holland and then had a decent penalty shout turned down by referee Rob Howard.
Niall Ennis, though, restored Plymouth’s lead before the break and the top-of-the-table side then added a third in the second half courtesy of Morgan Whittaker.
The Dons can certainly take positives from their performance and they end the day still just a point adrift of safety in Sky Bet League One, with 22 games left to play.
Mark Jackson made four changes to his MK Dons starting XI, with Ethan Robson, Mo Eisa, Bradley Johnson and Henry Lawrence replacing Zak Jules, Will Grigg, Josh McEachran and Tennai Watson. Matthew Dennis, meanwhile, returned to the squad and was among the substitutes.
MK Dons started well and forced a save out of Michael Cooper inside the opening minute. Louie Barry created the chance with a pass through to Eisa, who took it around the Plymouth defenders in his way but couldn’t beat Cooper with his right-footed effort.
At the other end, Henry Lawrence did well inside his own area to prevent Niall Ennis from being able to test Jamie Cumming. Plymouth, though, were able to take the lead with their next chance as WILSON got a foot to Morgan Whittaker’s in-swinging free-kick and directed the ball past Cumming. 1-0.
Ennis dragged a shot just wide of Cumming’s left post as the home side threatened a quickfire second. Danny Mayor also went close but saw his eighth-minute attempt flash past the right upright.
The Dons had a terrific opportunity to draw level just past the quarter-hour mark but, following a direct run into the box by Dawson Devoy, Eisa was denied, one-on-one, by the right boot of Cooper.
Cooper, however, could do nothing about HOLLAND finding an equaliser on 20 minutes. Lawrence created it, winning the ball deep in the Plymouth half before trying his luck from the edge of the D. His effort was blocked but the loose ball fell kindly for Holland, who read the bounce before calmly slotting home his first MK Dons goal. 1-1.
Buoyed by their leveller, the Dons went straight in search of a second and thought they would have the opportunity to do so from the penalty spot on 23 minutes when Barry was brought down in the area but referee Paul Howard opted not to point to the spot.
Plymouth responded through Mumba, who produced a smart save out of Cumming with an effort from the left-hand side of the box. The MK Dons goalkeeper was also equal to a pair of long-range strikes from Whittaker, which came in quick succession.
The hosts were able to restore their lead with nine minutes to play in the first half, hitting the Dons on the break - ENNIS providing the crucial finish, springing the offside trap and slotting past Cumming into the bottom left corner. 2-1.
In search of another leveller, Robson burst past his man down the left but wasn’t able to connect with a teammate with his low cross. Holland then teed up Eisa, who saw his shot deflect wide off an Argyle defender.
Eisa’s effort was the closest the Dons came to equalising before the break. They were almost in for a chance at a second early in the second but Barry was beaten to Holland’s through pass by Plymouth goalkeeper, Cooper, who had come a long way out of his goal to clear.
That missed opportunity proved costly, as five minutes later the hosts extended their lead through WHITTAKER, who was able to beat Cumming from the edge of the area with an excellent left-footed drive which found the net via the post. 3-1.
Shortly after the re-start, Holland forced Cooper into a strong stop as the Dons searched for a way back into the contest. They went agonisingly close to a second on 56 minutes but Barry wasn’t able to find the target from close range following Harvie’s deep cross.
Robson, 25 yards out, whistled one past the right post a minute later, shortly before Matt Dennis came off the bench to replace Holland as Jackson made his first substitution.
Bradley Johnson sent a dipping effort over the crossbar from the edge of the D, after Plymouth failed to properly deal with Devoy’s corner on 65 minutes. Moments later, Eisa tried his luck from a free-kick but had his effort blocked by the wall.
McEachran and Matt Smith replaced Devoy and Robson as Jackson went to his bench again with 19 minutes to play. The former sent a ball through to Eisa with just over a quarter of an hour to play but Wilson was able to win possession off the striker as he went to pull the trigger.
Johnson, attempting to direct McEachran’s free-kick into the mix, instead headed into the grateful arms of Cooper as the game moved into its closing stages. Jackson also made his final two changes, introducing Will Grigg and Tennai Watson in place of Barry and Lawrence.
Soon after coming on, Grigg attempted to tee up Eisa inside the area but his strike partner was just beaten to the pass by a Plymouth defender. They weren't, though, able to create much more after that, confirming defeat in their opening game of 2023.
MK Dons: Cumming, Tucker, O’Hora, Robson (Smith 71), Eisa, Holland (Dennis 61), Johnson, Barry (Grigg 86), Harvie, Lawrence (Watson 86), Devoy (McEachran 71).
Subs: Ravizzoli, Jules.
Goal: Holland 19
Plymouth Argyle: Cooper, Houghton (Butcher 61), Wilson, Scarr, Edwards, Mayor (Endacott 70), Ennis (Hardie 46), Mumba, Whittaker (Cosgrove 89), Randell, Lonwijk.
Subs: Burton, Bolton, Jenkins Davies
Goals: Wilson 4, Ennis 37, Whittaker 53
Referee: P Howard
Attendance: 15,421 (198 away)