Hatters vanquish the Red Dragons but can’t quite kill them off
Blue Square Bet Premier, Play-Off Semi-finals: Luton Town 2 (2) Wrexham 0 (0)
SCINTILLATING strikers Andre Gray and Stuart Fleetwood proved too much for Wrexham as Town put in a phenomenal performance to beat them 2-0 at Kenilworth Road this evening and put themselves in the box seat for a Wembley final on May 20, writes Mark Wood.
Disciplined Luton ran themselves into the ground on an atmospheric night at Kenilworth Road and it could have been many more as Town head into the second leg at the Racecourse Ground on Monday with a healthy lead.
Luton made two changes from the team that claimed an impressive 2-0 victory at champions Fleetwood on Saturday. Back into the starting XI came Robbie Willmott and Fleetwood, with Craig McAllister and John Paul Kissock dropping to the bench where there was also a place for fit-again striker Amari Morgan-Smith.
Luton had the game’s first effort on two minutes when Willmott’s near-post free-kick was flicked on by Gray but it was easy for Joslain Mayebi.
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Moments later Willmott’s deep corner found the imposing Janos Kovacs, but his downward header ran just wide.
A poor challenge left Curtis Osano in a heap but nothing was given and further controversy followed as George Pilkington slipped in a dangerous position and, as Jamie Tolley looked to break, referee D Bond controversially halted play so the full-back could receive treatment.
A breathless start continued as Mathias Pogba’s low cross was allowed to run into the six-yard box and Pilkington blocked superbly from Jay Harris.
Willmott whacked a wayward effort miles wide before Mark Tyler came to Town’s rescue on 14 minutes. Andy Morrell beat Pilkington to Pogba’s flick and his low drive was superbly turned round the post by Tyler only for a goal-kick to be awarded.
More controversy erupted when Willmott looked to have slipped Jake Howells in and Harris clipped his heels in the box. The referee pointed to the spot but Wrexham were then rescued by the linesman’s flag as Howells was adjudged to have been offside – albeit incorrectly as the Premier Sports cameras revealed.
And Luton took the lead with a fantastic goal on 22 minutes. Keith Keane’s brilliant searching ball held up just enough on the sodden pitch for speedster Fleetwood to keep it in play. He then did brilliantly to beat his man as he skirted the byline before pulling it back for strike partner Gray to thunder home from close range for his sixth goal in 10 games.
More unselfish running by Fleetwood caused chaos in the Wrexham box as Nat Knight-Percival conceded an unnecessary corner. A clever deep delivery was headed back in by Pilkington but Kovacs’ searching header couldn’t find a taker.
More great combination play from Fleetwood and Gray saw Town threaten on the break, while a scuffed Morrell effort was easy for Tyler at the other end.
Keane’s superb cross found no takers before Town doubled their lead with a brilliant second from Fleetwood on the half-hour. Alex Lawless broke up the play in the midfield as Town broke at pace and Gray’s clever backheel found the onrushing Fleetwood who expertly beat his man before slipping an exquisite finish past the exposed Mayebi, which went in off the post as Town’s top scorer netted his 16th of the season.
Shell-shocked Wrexham were rocking as Willmott skipped to byline and his canny curler was deflected behind.
Osano and Adam Watkins exchanged passes as Gray’s tame effort was just about snaffled by Mayebi before Howells was just unable to direct Fleetwood’s dangerous cross with the goal gaping.
Keane turned and drove forward from the midfield before drilling wide, Willmott whisked over and another raking Keane pass was seized on by livewire Fleetwood before a meaty challenge left Watkins writhing on the floor, which again went unpunished.
Two minutes of injury time were added and Town almost added a third when Fleetwood skinned two players but his cute finish ran agonisingly past the far post.
Fired up the Red Dragons, playing in their change blue kit, came out with more purpose after the break, roared on by their large travelling support.
Pilkington three times put in priceless headers as Wrexham searched for a way back into the tie.
The game became increasingly stretched as a result and Gray did well to create room on 53 minutes before thrashing over.
Wrexham continued to force corners in front of their vocal travelling support as har’um scar’um Luton threatened on the break with Willmott just unable to find the finishing touches to a pacy break.
Pogba stole in behind Osano to get on the end of a free-kick but skewed wide as the visitors pressed with Luton playing on the counter.
Willmott teed Watkins up on 64 minutes but his heavily deflected shot ran kindly for Mayebi.
An offside Pogba was thwarted by the linesman’s flag while a free-kick in a good position was smashed wastefully over by Willmott as McAllister replaced the tiring Fleetwood.
Great hold-up play by McAllister saw him play in Willmott but his effort was again wasteful.
Having weathered the Wrexham storm Town looked for a third and a thrusting run down the right by Osano eventually found its was to Gray and his stinging effort was palmed past the post by the keeper.
A Jamie Tolley free-kick hit a Luton arm as they were awarded another on the edge of the box but it hit Pilkington with the follow-up skewed behind.
End-to-end action ensued as Kovacs superbly blocked substitute Danny Wright’s effort before Town broke at pace and should have added a third with nine minutes to go.
Keane’s ball released Gray on the right and he picked out the unmarked Willmott in acres of space at the far post, who had time to take touch but his tame first time effort was straight at Mayebi when he really should have found the net.
Kissock was introduced for Watkins and Luton were inches away from adding a third on 84 minutes. Pilkington’s up and under was chested back by Ashton and past the wrong-footed Mayebi who looked on despairingly. And with Kovacs desperately trying to net the ball heading for the gaping net Knight-Percival somehow got back to deny him.
Morgan-Smith was introduced for the tireless Gray late on, while Pogba headed harmlessly over.
Pogba flashed another effort miles wide as Town held on to triumph 2-0 – their sixth clean sheet in a row – and take a priceless lead into Monday’s return leg at the Racecourse Ground.
Hatters: Mark Tyler, Keith Keane, George Pilkington (C), Alex Lawless, Robbie Willmott, Stuart Fleetwood (Craig McAllister 71), Jake Howells, Curtis Osano, Andre Gray (Amari Morgan-Smith 88), Adam Watkins (John Paul Kissock 83), Janos Kovacs. Substitutes not used: Greg Taylor, Shane Blackett.
Red Dragons: Joslain Mayebi, Neil Ashton, Mark Creighton, Jay Harris, Adrain Cieslewicz (Johnny Hunt 87), Andy Morrell (Danny Wright 69), Dean Keates (C), Jamie Tolley, Nat Knight-Percival, Mathias Pogba, Stephen Wright. Substitutes not used: Chris Maxwell, Chris Westwood, Joe Clarke.
Bookings: Watkins 76, Gray 85.
Referee: D Bond.
Assistant Referees: D Cook and L Venamore.
Fourth Official: K Johnson.
Attendance: 9,012 (974 Wrexham).
Star Hatter: Keith Keane. Colossus in the midfield as he won every last scrap.