Awesome Hatters slay Red Dragons

Blue Square Bet Premier, Play-Off Semi-final First Leg

Wrexham 0 (0) Luton Town 3 (3)

A PHENOMENAL performance from the Hatters saw them come away from the Racecourse Ground with a thoroughly deserved 3-0 victory over Wrexham tonight to put them well in the driving seat in this play-off semi-final tie, writes Mark Wood.

Terrific Town were in scintillating form throughout as they put in arguably their best performance of the season as they put the Red Dragons to the sword.

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The Racecourse Ground may normally be an unhappy hunting ground for the Hatters but they surged into a three-goal lead inside 35 minutes thanks to great strikes from Alex Lawless, Claude Gnakpa and a first-ever goal from reborn defender Ed Asafu-Adjaye.

Wrexham named an entirely changed XI from the side that drew 1-1 at Kenilworth Road in the last regular league game of the season on Saturday while Town made six changes to their starting team.

In came Dan Gleeson at right-back with Asafu-Adjaye keeping his place at left-back, Keith Keane, Lawless and Jake Howells into a three-man midfield, Gnakpa on the right wing and Jason Walker spearheading the attack.

Luke Graham, Adam Newton, Matthew Barnes-Homer and Lloyd Owusu dropped to the bench with Dan Walker and Godfrey Poku missing out entirely.

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Town started well and after some neat footwork by Walker the ball fell to Howells on the edge of the box whose snapshot was easily saved by Chris Maxwell.

Jay Harris spooned a volley well over 10 minutes later and Andy Mangan threatened, but Town almost grabbed the lead on 14 minutes when Robbie Willmott’s teasing free-kick was clawed round the post by Maxwell with George Pilkington lurking at the back post.

But Luton did take the lead with a screamer from Welshman Lawless on 16 minutes. He won the ball in the middle of the park from Chris Blackburn, surged forward and drove home into the bottom right-hand corner from 25 yards as Town’s supporters at the opposite end went ballistic.

With the Welshman rocking the Hatters should have made it two three minutes later. Walker chased a lost cause and got the better of former Premier League defender Frank Sinclair on the byline. His stabbed cross was flicked on to the far post by Willmott but Howells’ volley crashed against the bar with Maxwell well beaten and Lawless could only fire the rebound over.

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Wrexham were winning some dangerous flick-ons in and around the box but it was Luton who were playing all the football and they should have doubled their advantage on 26 minutes. Sinclair dallied on the ball and his pass put Blackburn in trouble. Keane did superbly to rob his man and powered towards goal but, with two men converging, his weak finish was too close to Maxwell who saved low to his left. Walker tried to seize on the follow-up, but his touch took the ball away from him and the home side were able to clear when he should have at least got a shot in.

But Town did deservedly make it 2-0 on 28 minutes with a peach of a goal. Asafu-Adjaye, Keane, Walker and Howells’ final great pass moved the ball from one side of the field to the other and Gnakpa drove an unstoppable rocket past the despairing Maxwell.

With Town in the ascendancy the home crowd grew restless as Luton continued to play some wonderful football and threatening at regular intervals.

Gleeson had a shot deflected behind and from the resulting corner Town made it three on 35 minutes to put their supporters in dreamland. Willmott swung a corner over to the unmarked Asafu-Adjaye on the edge of the area who took a touch and stumbled before drilling a shot inside Maxwell’s near post.

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The Red Dragons keeper should never have been beaten from there but Town players mobbed Asafu-Adjaye all the same as he deliriously celebrated his first-ever senior strike with his team-mates.

Captain Dean Keates curled a Wrexham free-kick well wide at the other end before trouble flared in the Mold Road Stand as a segment of Wrexham’s fans tried to get at the Luton fans, but the police were quickly out to stem the flow.

Frenchman Gnakpa produced a dazzling run through the centre of the pitch with three minutes of the half left. Hurdling numerous challenges he eventually steadied himself on the edge of the box but drove straight at Maxwell.

Wrexham pressed in the closing moments, Gareth Taylor flicking Keates’ cross wide, Zdenek Kroca deflecting Mangan’s shot wide and Keane heading away Blackburn’s blast as the Welshmen trudged off to just a murmur of boos following a half in which they had been completely outplayed by the Hatters.

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Blackburn and Harris were the first names into the book within a minute of each other for fouls on Howells and Willmott as the home side started the second half with more purpose.

Keates curled a free-kick miles over, while Gnakpa had a shot blocked following Kroca’s knockdown at the other end.

A series of Wrexham crosses caused some danger as the decibel level at the Racecourse Ground began to rise as the home fans got behind their side.

Wrexham were playing with a greater intensity as they looked for a route back into the game and Keates fired a dangerous low cross along the six-yard box that found no takers.

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A reckless tackle on a grounded Gnakpa by Keates drew another booking, before the hosts made two changes in quick succession as they looked to put some pep in their step.

Both sides started to hit longer balls as the game stretched and Town were given a sight of goal with 20 minutes to go when Walker thundered in a cross, Willmott stretched to direct the ball into Lawless’ path but the classy midfielder could only volley over.

Mark Creighton became the fourth Wrexham player into the book for a lunging foul on Willmott with his free-kick being deflected behind and Gnakpa was ludicrously booked for foul on Keates, despite the fact the Wrexham midfielder had his hand round Gnakpa’s throat.

Wrexham finally had their first shot on target on 81 minutes but the well-placed Curtis Obeng’s tame effort was well saved by Mark Tyler.

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Town went close again seconds later when Keane drove an effort into the box and Kroca had one effort cleared off the line by a defender before being denied by a good save by the keeper.

Some haphazard defending by Sinclair almost let Willmott nip in and Maxwell blasted his kick into the pair and the ball bounced to safety.

The home crowd grew increasingly frustrated by the officials’ decisions as four minutes were added at the end.

Keane’s effort in the fourth minute of injury-time was tipped over by Maxwell but the damage had already been done as the referee’s final whistle sounded seconds later.

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A mini-pitch invasion from a small group of Wrexham fans left the pitch as soon as it had entered it as Luton put themselves in the driving seat for the return leg at Kenilworth Road on Tuesday night.

Red Dragons (4-3-3): Chris Maxwell, Curtis Obeng, Neil Ashton, Chris Blackburn (Lee Fowler 66), Jay Harris, Gareth Taylor (Jamie Tolley 78), Andy Mangan, Dean Keates (C), Frank Sinclair, Nat Knight-Percival (Obi Anoruo 64), Mark Creighton. Substitutes not used: Joslain Mayebi, Marvin Andrews.

Hatters (4-3-3): Mark Tyler, Dan Gleeson, Keith Keane, George Pilkington (C), Robbie Willmott, Zdenek Kroca, Alex Lawless, Jake Howells, Ed Asafu-Adjaye, Claude Gnakpa (Matthew Barnes-Homer 83), Jason Walker. Substitutes not used: Kevin Pilkington, Luke Graham, Adam Newton, Lloyd Owusu.

Bookings: Blackburn 49; Harris 50; Keates 61; Creighton 75; Gnakpa 76.

Referee: SJ Martin.

Assistant referees: J Clark and J Brooks.

Fourth Official: J Simpson.

Attendance: 7,211.

Star Hatter: Alex Lawless. Great opening goal spurred Luton on their way and was a class act all night.

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