Assal a shining light in Dons dismal defeat against Fleetwood Town


AFC Wimbledon were dealt late heartbreak on Easter Monday as they succumbed to defeat at the hands of Fleetwood Town.

In a game of few chances, Fleetwood stole maximum points in the dying embers following a catastrophic error from Dons goalkeeper Nik Tzanev. Attempting to play out from the back, the New Zealander’s pass was charged down by Barry McKay, cannoning off the substitute and into the back of the net to break AFC Wimbledon hearts.

One beacon of hope for the home side came via 19-year-old Ayoub Assal. The midfielder can hold his head high, for it was his coupling of guile and gusto that provided a glimmer of optimism throughout. But for his efforts, the Dons attacking output was tepid, plenty of huff and puff but a severe lacking in substance.

The Dons have laboured mightily for goals this campaign, only fellow strugglers Northampton Town scoring fewer than their 36 strikes, a huge factor in them finding themselves in such a perilous predicament. It is for that reason why Assal’s inclusion came as no surprise, as Mark Robinson sought to discover that elusive creative spark.

Monday’s encounter served as a microcosm of the team’s season, 10 shots but not a single one on target, as the Wombles woes in front of goal continue to linger on.

On the day, AFC Wimbledon were unable to capitalise upon the industriousness and ingenuity deriving from the starlet’s endeavours.

Blessed with a lethal combination of blistering pace and agility, the 19-year-old stood out in a dour affair. His undoubted skill shone during a contest which was severely devoid of the trait, Assal consistently threatening to be the most likely candidate to unlock the Cod Army’s defence.

Fulfilling the number 10 role, the Englishman took pride in drifting into dangerous pockets of space, demonstrating an uncanny ability to turn on a sixpence, leaving trailing defenders for dead.

An insatiable comfort in executing a compilation of audacious twists and turns bamboozled Fleetwood would-be tacklers, reducing players that boast a wealth of EFL experience, the likes of Wes Burns and Callum Camps, to dumbfounded bystanders on occasion.

Assal’s seemingly limitless battery and elusiveness garnered frustration from the opposition, and he was subjected to a plethora of sturdy challenges, the Cod Army’s Callum Connolly brandished a caution in the 12th minute for one such incident.

To his credit, he was not to be deterred, appearing to grow in determination to outwit defenders with every next cynical challenge suffered.

Despite his modest 5”8 stature, Assal is not shy to get stuck in himself, lunging into a crunching tackle on Danny Andrew during the opening period, ever willing to work for the team in addition to influencing proceedings whilst in possession.

He also possesses a delightful first touch, able to harness possession irrespective of how the ball arrives, along with acute vision, capable of splitting defences wide open with pinpoint precision passes.

His insurmountable confidence in his own ability had him constantly showing for the ball and hollering in the direction of fellow teammates to highlight when available to receive passes.

Such a commanding presence, at an incredibly tender age, is impressive to say the least and bodes well for his future in the game.

He was shifted over to the left wing in the second period, displaying his positional versatility and showed a propensity to attempt to impact the scoresheet, embarking on a number of lung-busting runs from deep into the Fleetwood box.

Admittedly, he did fade after the break. In fairness, as a young player, still learning his trade, this is only natural and he’ll undoubtedly address, managing his endurance levels better as his career progresses.

Assal drew high praise from manager Mark Robinson following the contest:

“Ayoub was brilliant.

“I got told by many people that the young man probably wouldn’t be able to play at this level. I thought he was fantastic, his energy is great, his detail is very good, and I am pleased with him.”

A product of Millwall’s academy, Assal joined AFC Wimbledon at the age of 12, featuring prominently at Under-18 level from the age of 15. He put pen to paper on a first professional contract in April 2019, shortly prior to joining Metropolitan Police on loan.

Making his senior bow in November 2019 during a 3-1 EFL Trophy defeat to Southend United, he then linked up with Metropolitan Police on a temporary basis once again, scoring two goals in fifteen appearances whilst with the Southern Football League outfit.

Hoping for further exposure to regular football, Assal made a loan move to Billericay Town in October 2020, making a solitary appearance prior to being recalled by his parent club.

His senior bow for the Dons arrived in October 2020 and he made an unforgettable impact, scoring an equaliser to secure a 1-1 draw against Shrewsbury Town. In total, Assal has made four appearances for the Plough Lane side, and on this evidence, will be confident in padding this total in coming weeks.

Assal also has sights on an international career, having been called-up by Morocco Under-20s earlier this season to participate in a Rabat based training camp.

The Dons remaining fixtures appear inauspicious on paper, their run-in comprising of two meetings with Ipswich Town, a hosting of play-off chasing Oxford United, and daunting trips to Accrington Stanley and Lincoln City; adding further cause for concern to their survival hopes.

Should AFC Wimbledon suffer the indignation of relegation to League Two, it would not be surprising to see a club sitting at a higher level take a punt on the lively attack-minded midfielder as his upward trajectory is there for all to witness.

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