Mansfield Town slipped to a 2-0 defeat to an impressive Shrewsbury Town, who are now comfortably embedded in the automatic promotion places in Sky Bet League Two.
The Stags, who had Jamie McGuire sent-off in the first half, were put under relentless pressure by the home side, who earned their victory thanks to goals by Bobby Grant and James Collins.
On a stressful day for the Stags, which began with the team bus arriving at Gay Meadow – the old home of their opponents, Shrewsbury began the brighter and created the first opening after just three minutes when Bobby Grant let fly with a curling shot from 25 yards, which went narrowly wide of Sascha Studer’s right-hand post.
Grant was off-target again from a similar position only 60 seconds later as Micky Mellon’s team knocked the ball around well and applied plenty of early pressure.
The Shrews won the first corner on seven minutes as Mickey Demetriou, who was linked with a call-up to the Cyprus national team earlier this week, saw a scruffy shot deflected wide, but the subsequent set-piece came to nothing.
A scrappy period of play then ensued as the visitors began to settle down and see more of the ball, though Shrewsbury still dominated territorially.
There was a moment of concern for Mansfield on the quarter-hour mark when Jack Grimmer got the better of Lee Beevers out on the right flank and cut inside, but just as he shaped up to deliver a cross through the goalmouth, he accidentally ran the ball out of play – resulting in a goal-kick.
Nevertheless, the Shrews were still threatening and ex-Stag Liam Lawrence, who received a standing ovation pre-match from the travelling fans, was the next to cause danger. The 32-year-old delivered a long free-kick into the mixer which caused havoc and Luke Waterfall eventually had to knock the ball out for a corner.
Lawrence again took the resulting set-piece – delivering a dangerous ball towards the near-post, but Ryan Tafazolli headed the ball away to safety as the danger came to pass.
Tafazolli made another vital interception on 21 minutes when he slid along the turf and connected with the ball – preventing an unmarked Grimmer from latching onto a dangerous pass.
The Stags then created their first opening of the afternoon when Chris Clements burst into the area from the left flank and fed a short pass to skipper Adam Murray, whose effort was blocked by Connor Goldson.
Referee Darren Handley was then thrust into the spotlight during a crazy five-minute spell prior to the half-hour mark, which changed the course of the match and saw the Stags reduced to 10 men.
On 26 minutes, Jamie McGuire’s strong challenge on Lawrence sparked a reaction from his opponent. After a lengthy delay in which the referee consulted with both assistants, both players were booked.
McGuire didn’t heed the warning, however, and three minutes later the 31-year-old was given his marching orders following another strong tackle – this time on James Collins on the halfway line.
As a result, the Stags, having already been put under long spells of pressure, were now faced with an even sterner uphill task of trying to keep out their promotion-chasing counterparts with about an hour left to play.
Shrewsbury upped the ante, though Grimmer should have done better when he scuffed an effort wide of Sascha Studer’s right-hand post from about 20 yards.
Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro headed over from Lawrence’s corner on 36 minutes, before Collins squandered a gilt-edge opportunity when he latched onto Grimmer’s pull-back and blazed over from 10 yards.
Mansfield then made a surprise change on 39 minutes as Matt Rhead was replaced by Ollie Palmer and just a couple of minutes later, home ‘keeper Jayson Leutwiler was tested when Daniel Carr tricked his way inside with some intricate footwork and saw a powerful attempt palmed away.
At the other end, Collins hit a dipping volley straight at Studer, whilst Lawrence seized upon a loose ball just before the interval and curled an effort wide.
With a numerical advantage in players, the Shrews came out on the front foot and immediately put Mansfield under pressure after the re-start.
Lawrence delivered yet another good corner into the mixer, which Studer opted to punch away, and Demetriou picked up the loose ball and whistled a thunderous drive narrowly over.
The Stags then won their first corner on 51 minutes, but it almost proved to be their undoing.
Clements’ cross into the box was easily cleared away and the Shrews broke at lightning-quick speed down the right channel with Grimmer and James Wesolowski linking up, before the ball reached Akpa Akpro in the box.
The experienced frontman brilliantly spun away from his marker to carve out a good shooting angle, but his goalbound attempt towards the top-left corner was magnificently tipped over by Studer.
The hosts – knowing a victory could take them top of the table – went close again less than a minute later as Grant’s glancing header from Lawrence’s cross went just inches wide.
Mansfield were struggling to prevent what was fast-becoming a relentless tidal wave of pressure and in the next attack Luke Waterfall took a shot from Lawrence square in the face.
It seemed likely that at some point the hosts would make a breakthrough and that’s exactly what happened on the hour mark.
Grimmer provided an inviting ball from out on the right-wing straight to the feet of Grant, who took a touch and let fly with a stunning, swerving blockbuster of a strike that gave Studer absolutely no chance.
The Shrews’ lead was fully merited, but not satisfied with a one-goal cushion; they immediately sought to double it.
Tafazolli got in the way of a close-range effort by Collins on 63 minutes and performed a perfectly-timed challenge on Grant just two minutes later, before Riley held off Akpa Akpro in a separate attack.
Grant went close to doubling his tally when he unleashed a dipping shot that went narrowly over, before Collins smashed over from just a few yards after yet another excellent cross by Grimmer and good hold up play by Akpa Akpro.
With a quarter-of-an-hour remaining, the result was put beyond all realistic doubt. Wesolowski’s set-piece delivery from the left was high towards the penalty spot where an unopposed Jermaine Grandison headed the ball goalwards and Collins produced an exquisite shot on the turn to double the hosts’ lead.
Shrewsbury had the ball in the net again three minutes later, but Collins was penalised for wrestling Freeman to the ground in his attempts to reach Grimmer’s back-post cross.
The hosts enjoyed a plethora of corners in the closing stages and Wesolowski had a shot blocked, whilst Grimmer whistled into the side-netting in a separate attack.
Collins was also twice foiled by Studer – the young Swiss custodian making two great saves, whilst Lawrence went within inches of scoring against his old employers as he curled a free-kick wide on the brink of injury-time.
Mansfield’s best opportunity in the second half came right at the end as Palmer drew a full-stretch save from Leutwiler, but it was far too little, far too late as Shrewsbury ran out victorious to continue their excellent run of form.
Attendance: 5,001 (356 away supporters).