Unlucky Stags Beaten From The Spot

Luton gained their first home win of the season on Saturday afternoon with a 1-0 victory over Mansfield Town. The winning goal was blasted straight down the middle from the penalty spot by Craig Mackail-Smith, who won the penalty after cutting across Ryan Tafazolli. It was a deserved goal for Mackail-Smith who was excellent all afternoon and surely the best all round striker in the division. The result was unfair on the Stags, who deserved at least a point.

Despite reports of a virus in the camp, it would appear none of the first eleven were effected as Adam Murray elected to name the same side that impressively disposed of Crawley the previous week, and to start with, the same 4-4-1-1 formation. Chris Beardsley had picked up a knock and was replaced on the bench by Matty Blair, who is reportedly already testing Murray's resolve in throwing him back into first team action following his long injury lay-off. 

Mansfield started the game on the back foot, with Luton intent on giving their fans something to cheer about after a disappointing campaign so far. The hosts were playing some slick stuff and managed to set Lawless away down the right. His low cross along the six yard line was poked away by Pearce as far as Smith. Smith took a touch and side-footed low to Jensens left, only for the keeper to get down well to push it away. Both Pearce and Benning were on the line behind Jensen and probably would have cleared had Jensen not saved.

After being penned in for much of the opening quarter, Mansfield had their first sight of goal following good play by Green and Thomas, working the ball to Mitch Rose, whose effort was blocked. At the other end, Luton were getting a lot of joy down the Stags left, Tafazolli defending a cross well.

The Stags should have been front with 20 minutes played. A cross from the left by Thomas initially appeared disappointing and should have been dealt with by McNulty. However, the Luton captain's touch was poor and span into the path of Green, who shot on the turn with his weaker foot, but Tyler was equal to it and blocked with his legs. Had Green lifted his shot, Mansfield would have taken the lead.

Midway through the half, with Thomas providing little protection for Benning down the left, Mitch Rose was drafted into the centre of the park from the right, with Westcarr filling in on the wing. A more defensive move by Murray, with Rose given the task of helping out Benning.

On 28 minutes, an off the ball incident between Green and defender Wilkinson had the home fans calling for Green to be dismissed. I only caught the incident out of the corner of my eye but there was some kind of altercation between the two players, with the Luton man hitting the deck. Wilkinson though had been conning the referee all afternoon in some form or another, constantly grabbing at the shirt of Tafazolli when the Stags had a set piece.

The game became scrappy after the Stags formation switch, Luton struggling to break Mansfield down and the visitors showing little ambition going forward, attempting to stifle The Hatters with the crowd sounding their growing frustration at the officials. The aforementioned frustration was set to increase on 42 minutes.

Not for the first time in the half, a Luton move developed down the Stags left. Both Thomas and Benning failed to prevent McQuoid from delivering a chipped cross towards the penalty spot, where the ball was met by a thunderbolt of an overhead kick by Mackail-Smith which gave Jensen no chance. Unfortunately for Luton, the assistants flag was to prevent the goal of the season contender. Having looked at the replays, it is hard to fathom how Mackail-Smith could have been offside. It must have been a very tight decision. When retrieving the ball from the net, Jensen puffed out his cheeks with a bemused look on his face, as if to say 'Where did that come from?'.

No more chances in the first half but a blow for the Stags just before half time as Chris Clements went down holding his groin and was unable to continue. Such a shame for Clements having started the season so strongly, but an opportunity for his replacement Jack Thomas to play in his favoured position and kickstart his season. The referee went off to dogs abuse at half time from the Luton fans. Whilst the Stags performance had been nothing to shout about, Luton had created only a couple of chances despite having the lion's share of possession.

Murray said after the game that he tried to instil belief into his players during the interval and again lined his team up for the start of the half in a 4-4-1-1 formation. Mansfield's play definitely had a renewed sense of vigour in the second period. The manager must have feared the worst however, when Jack Thomas got booked in the opening seconds of the half. It seems as if Murray has asked his team to be 'nastier' this season, with a marked increase in the yellow card count.

After a promising start, Mansfield again had a chance to take the lead on 52 minutes following an incisive breakaway. Nathan Thomas picked up the ball inside his own half and drove through the centre of the pitch. He carried the ball until 25 yards from goal and slipped a pass to his right into the path of Westcarr inside the area. Westcarr was struggling to stay in front of the retreating defender and slowed up into the ball, side-footing a shot straight at Tyler. The power on the shot led to the ball squirming underneath Tyler and towards goal, but the keeper recovered well to smother. 

Following the save, Murray replaced Nathan Thomas with Reggie Lambe. I can only assume the substitution was borne out of the wingers defensive frailties rather than his forward play. The substitution was a little hasty in my opinion, especially following a 30 yard run and pass which would surely have boosted Thomas' confidence. On 56 minutes, some good work down the right by Rose led to a cross flashing across the face of goal and out the other side.

The hosts took the lead just before the hour mark. Mackail-Smith showed some excellent movement as he manoeuvred himself between the two Stags central defenders and was found thanks to an exquisite through pass by Smith. The striker took his first touch on 18 yard line in the centre of the goal and pushed the ball to the right, back across the path of the pursuing Tafazolli. The Stags defender put his hands on Mackail-Smith, leading to the striker hitting the deck and winning a penalty. Clever play from the striker and a definite penalty. Tafazolli was lucky to escape with a yellow card as he was the last man. With Jensen advancing and the striker heading wide of goal, I am not sure it was a challenge that needed to be made and would rather have seen Mackail-Smith given the objective of finishing from a tight angle. The striker dusted himself down and thumped the spot kick straight down the middle, with Jensen diving to his right.

Despite being a goal down, Mansfield continued to be the better team in the second half. On 63 minutes, a patient passing move ended with Rose firing another low cross goalwards which was collected by Tyler. At other end, Wilkinson curled high over the bar from just inside the box.

With twenty minutes to go, there was a sense of multiplying anxiety from both Luton players and fans as they attempted to cling to their one goal lead. On 71 minutes, Tafazolli headed the ball down to Jack Thomas 25 yards from goal. The youngster struck a sweet shot towards the bottom right hand corner, only for Tyler to tip the ball wide. Another good save from Tyler. From the corner, Tafazolli again met the ball, his header was on target but cleared away by a defender. Thomas again tried his luck from long range but this effort produced a more comfortable save from Tyler.

Luton had a chance on 76 minutes. Following a quick free kick down the right which caught the Stags napping, a cross was headed over by Wilkinson when he really should have done better.

On 77 minutes, Adi Yussuf was introduced in place of Mitch Rose, who had played well down the right in the second half. A couple of minutes later, a free-kick from the left by Benning was directed wide by the head of Westcarr.

A third clear cut chance presented itself to the Stags on 82 minutes. Adam Chapman hooked the ball over the top of the Luton defence to find Yussuf through on goal. Yussuf initially did well to hold off the challenge of the defender and tried to fashion the ball onto his left foot, only to overrun the ball through to the keeper. It is not the first time Yussuf's touch has let him down when through on goal this season and perhaps explains his lack of first team action thus far. Nevertheless, he is at least getting into promising positions and can still be an asset as the season progresses.

Mansfield continued to pour forward. On 84 minutes, Westcarr did well on the edge of the area to work a shooting opportunity on his left side. His low shot was tame and saved by Tyler. Westcarr could have carried the ball a little further. With the game coming to a close, Jack Thomas delivered a fantastic cross from the right which was equally well defended by O'Donnell to deny a couple of awaiting Stags shirts.

Despite late pressure, the Stags could not find an equaliser and succumbed to their second league defeat of the season. It was harsh on Mansfield who deserved at least a point, and perhaps all three had their finishing been sharper, a fact acknowledged by Adam Murray post-match. Whilst not being rewarded with any points, The Stags can take forward belief that they are good enough to cause problems both home and away.

Mansfield now move on to face Plymouth at Field Mill next Saturday. The Stags will have a tough task on their hands against the Pilgrims, who are currently sitting in third position in League Two. The job will be made tougher for the Stags who will be without skipper Nicky Hunt through suspension and perhaps Chris Clements through injury. A chance for Lee Collins, who was expected to be the Stags first choice defender at the start of the season, to impress at right back. Jack Thomas did his reputation no harm at Kenilworth Road and is the likely replacement for Clements. 

It will be a chance for Mansfield to bounce back against a team who are likely to be 'up there' come the end of the season. It will be disappointing to see Murray revert to anything other than the 4-4-1-1 formation which was so successful at Crawley in an attempt to extend the Stags unbeaten home record to five games.

Player Ratings : 

Jensen - 7 - Did not have much to do but produced a good save in the first half.
Hunt - 7 - Most of the Luton play came down the Stags left. Would like to see him get forward a bit more. Suspended for next game.
Pearce - 8 - Another excellent performance.
Tafazolli - 6.5 - Generally good but mistake for the penalty.
Benning - 7 - Coped well mostly when left with two men.
Rose - 7.5 - Solid first half and good second. One excellent cross form the right which deserved to be tapped in.
Chapman - 7 - Good ball over the top for Yussuf chance. Dictated play in the second half. Still gets caught in possession in dangerous areas.
Clements - 6.5 - A few good tackles before picking up an injury. Did not see much of the ball whilst he was on. Will be missed next week if unavailable.
Thomas - 6.5 - Looked a threat when in possession, putting ball on a plate for Westcarr. Very poor defensively.
Westcarr - 7 - Missed a good chance but had a good game. Very clever movement to get on to the ball.
Green - 6.5 - Did ok but missed a good chance which he would usually take.

Subs : 

J. Thomas (Clements 44) - 7.5 - Tenacious game. Went close to equaliser. Finally got to play in favoured position and looked back to last seasons level.
Lambe (N. Thomas 53) - Hardly noticed he was on the pitch. Needs to be doing a lot more when you match with contributions of Westcarr/N Thomas/Rose, especially with Blair now back in the fold.
Yussuf (Rose 77) - Should have scored but looks short on confidence/fitness.