Report by John Edwards
Picture by David Munro
Altrincham 0 Notts County 2
Notts County made it clear they haven't yet given up on the Vanarama National League title, but they still needed the help of two controversial goals to see off a spirited Altrincham side and secure the three points required to leapfrog Wrexham at the top of the table.
With a free-flowing slick-passing style that Phil Parkinson's side model themselves on and aspire to emulate, the visitors had the edge on Alty for lengthy spells, even allowing for Regan Linney having a penalty saved when it was still 1-0.
But, to the Robins' credit, not only was it a slight edge, their illustrious opponents had to rely on two highly-contentious refereeing decisions for a scoreline that hoisted them above Wrexham on goal difference, having played two games more than their title rivals.
It was a fixture Alty could have done without, so close to their Isuzu FA Trophy semi-final with FC Halifax Town, but the league put their foot down with an edict that the Robins adhered to by fielding a strong starting line-up that gave as good as they got, for 45 minutes at least.
County's progressive passing football eventually wore Alty down, though the Robins were entitled to feel aggrieved at the nature of the goals, one a quickly-taken free-kick that was a little too swift for the home team's liking and the other a penalty for handball that looked harsh, to say the least.
Other positives? Alty came through unscathed, or so it appeared at first glance, while the sensible decision was taken to withdraw key midfielder Isaac Marriott in only the 39th minute after he was booked, rather than leaving him on and risk a second yellow card that would have ruled him out on Saturday.
After a cagey opening from both sides, the visitors fashioned the first chance in the eighth minute when a clever turn by Ruben Rodrigues opened up space for a low shot that Ollie Byrne turned round, diving to his right.
County were doing most of the pressing, and they went close again in the 11th minute when a shot from the left deflected off Eddy Jones and flew narrowly wide.
There was some respite for the Robins when Linney turned John Bostock inside out on a run down the left before teeing up Eddy Jones for a shot that was blocked.
When a breakthrough came after 25 minutes, it went County's way in a manner that left the Alty camp incensed.
A free-kick on the edge of the area had just been awarded and players from both sides were still milling around the ball when it was suddenly rolled forward into the path of Macaulay Langstaff, who turned and slotted it past Byrne.
Byrne led a posse of Alty players in pursuit of the referee, arguing furiously that no signal had been given that the kick could be given, by whistle or word of mouth, but it was all to no avail.
The official stuck to his guns, but he did rule in Alty's favour soon after, when Linney latched on to a pass from Tyrese Sinclair and set off on a typically-forceful run into the right side of the area in the 31st minute.
It looked as if Linney was about to try his luck from the corner of the six-yard box, but, instead, he turned inside Kyle Cameron's challenge and was sent sprawling by the defender's challenge.
Referee Jacob Miles immediately pointed to the spot and booked Cameron, but when the ensuing protests finally subsided, the Alty striker suffered his first penalty miss so far as Archie Mair flung himself to his right to pull off an excellent save.
One requirement needed to be a successful leader of the line is an ability to shrug off the occasional setback, and there was no sign of anything preying on Linney's mind as he carved out another moment of danger in the 39th minute.
Again he left his marker trailing with a burst of acceleration that took him to the left bye-line, only for the low delivery that followed to flash across the edge of the six-yard area without anyone on hand to apply the finishing touch.
Alty had it all to do after another hotly-contested decision by referee Miles went against them in the 48th minute.
Winger Aaron Nemane hammered the ball against an Alty defender, possibly Eddy Jones, from point-blank range and then turned, surely more in hope than expectation, towards Miles, who promptly pointed to the spot.
Alty claims that there was no intent to handle went unheeded, as Rodrigues stepped up to blast the penalty past Byrne to give his side a two-goal cushion.
It might have been three, but for a smart diving save by Byrne to deny Matty Palmer as County began to dominate possession and intensify their efforts to further boost their goal difference.
It was a quest that went unfulfilled, as Alty stuck to their guns and defended stoutly, not least in the 72nd minute when Bostock worked space for a shot inside the area, only for Harry Perritt to come sliding in from nowhere to block the goalbound effort.
Substitute Luke Burgess blazed narrowly over for Alty late on, but there was to be no consolation goal for the Robins, who must now concentrate on recharging their batteries in readiness for Saturday's visit of Halifax and a Trophy tie that will reward the winners with a trip to Wembley.