Brewers close to joining the Alty list before Zola strikes to earn a replay
WHATEVER the wealthiest clubs may think of the FA Cup, ties such as the one Burton Albion and Altrincham served up keep on proving that it remains a thrilling competition further down the football food chain.
Altrincham were once renowned as the game's most consistent non-League giant-killers and while it has been a few years since they were involved in an upset, today's Alty came very close to adding to the list at the Pirelli Stadium yesterday.
The Brewers, knocked out of their stride from the first whistle by an exceptional performance from the Blue Square Bet North side, claimed a replay by the skin of their teeth with a goal in added time, after first falling two goals behind, fighting back and then conceding the lead again.
Both sides missed penalties and Jake Moult, on loan from Alfreton Town, cracked the underside of the bar with a shot for Altrincham as fortunes ebbed and flowed in a game that made up for in incident what it lacked in quality.
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Altrincham started well and, in the first half at least, did not look back.
They could have been in front in the fourth minute when Moult played Simon Richman through and keeper Mark Oxley tripped him as he dived to try to reach the ball, referee Michael Bull pointing to the penalty spot.
Oxley looked a little hard done by but then kept Damian Reeves' spot-kick out with a firm hand high to his left.
It was already more action than he had seen in the whole of his debut against Bradford City the previous week.
James Lawrie was off target with a couple of efforts as Altrincham continued to make all of the running.
Burton's first chance did not arrive until the 21st minute, when Billy Kee slipped around left-back Matt Doughty as he accepted a throw-in from Anthony O'Connor on the right and his shot was turned away to his right by Stuart Coburn, the veteran keeper who was in the Altrincham team the last time the sides met at Northern Premier League level in 2001.
Zander Diamond then met Lee Bell's corner with a half-volley which flew a foot over the bar and Jacques Maghoma chipped a shot wide from 22 yards in the 27th minute but the goal the Conference North side had been threatening came two minutes later.
Wayne Densmore and Nicky Clee worked a short free kick on the right and Clee gave Damien McCrory the slip before hitting a hard, low cross which Carl Rodgers turned in ahead of Oxley from close range.
Burton were close to an instant response when Coburn spilled a Kee shot but Robbie Weir hit the rebound over the bar from the edge of the box.
Altrincham doubled their lead in the 34th minute.
Clee's corner from the right was missed by Oxley and, as he tried to clear the ball at the far post, Nathan Stanton could only turn it into the roof of the net.
Oxley kept Burton alive a minute before the break when Altrincham top scorer Reeves charged clear, the keeper blocking the shot with his legs, then pouncing on the rebound.
Coburn kept them two ahead with an equally good save a minute before the break, turning away Maghoma's shot.
Diamond had a header cleared off the line in first-half stoppage time.
It had been a wretched half for the Brewers, though. They had to be better after the interval – and they were.
Robbie Weir, who became noticeably more involved, shot wide after 51 minutes and Burton were back in the game in the 53rd minute.
Jordan Chapell, also seeing more of the ball, was tripped on the right and Diamond timed his run perfectly to turn in Bell's free kick at the near post.
Kee was soon close with a curling shot which Coburn turned over, Chapell shot wide, then Damien McCrory threaded through a pass which Calvin Zola tucked beyond Coburn, only to be foiled by an offside flag.
At this point, it was all Burton and they should have equalised after 63 minutes when Moult needlessly stuck up an arm to stop McCrory's cross, conceding a penalty which Weir launched embarrassingly out of the stadium.
While the chances kept coming for the Brewers, Altrincham suddenly produced a brilliant attack full of first-time passes and when Lawrie crossed from the right, Moult swept the ball against the underside of the bar from 12 yards, with Reeves unable to reach the rebound.
Having got away with that, Burton equalised in the 76th minute. Anthony O'Connor was fouled on the right and, this time, Bell's free kick went to the far post, where Diamond at first seemed to get the vital touch but Maghoma claimed the goal.
Back came Altrincham and, with five minutes left, substitute Duncan Whatmore hit what looked a harmless cross from the right but McCrory stuck out a foot to stop it and succeeded only in diverting the ball over Oxley and into the net.
The visitors looked like they had done enough to earn victory but, three minutes into stoppage time, Chapell did exceptionally well to dig out a driven cross from near the right corner flag and Zola glanced in a header at the near post.
Burton's second-half efforts had just about earned them that but, equally, they could hardly have complained if Altrincham had held on.