Mansfield Town were unable to stop Luton Town’s promotion push, as they slipped to a 3-0 defeat at Kenilworth Road.
Paul Benson, who later went off with what looked to be a serious ankle/leg injury, put the hosts infront on 19 minutes, before a second half brace by Shaun Whalley sealed the points.
After a very tentative start, the Stags should have done better with the first opening of the game as Kieron Freeman whipped in a dangerous ball at head height from the right flank which was just too high for Vadaine Oliver, who had taken up a promising position at the back-post.
The Hatters responded with an opportunity of their own less than 60 seconds later. Nathan Doyle let fly with a speculative 30-yard strike that bounced up and forced Sascha Studer to tip it wide at the expense of a corner, which fortunately came to nothing.
Following this attack, Luton, searching for a victory that could take them back to the summit in Sky Bet League Two, grew in confidence and started to apply more pressure.
Paul Benson went close on the quarter-hour mark when he rose unopposed at the back-post to meet Andy Drury’s free-kick, but he couldn’t direct his header towards the target.
On 17 minutes, Shaun Whalley was punished for simulation after he theatrically threw himself to the ground under a challenge from Lee Beevers, but instead of the Luton man winning a penalty, he was shown a yellow card.
Nevertheless, the hosts’ pressure soon paid off. Benson showed some good footwork to get towards the edge of the six-yard box and although his initial shot was blocked by Studer, the forward regained the ball with his back to goal, held off two players and trickled a low effort into the bottom-right corner.
Surprisingly, it was Benson’s first league goal this season and the emotion showed in his celebration, just infront of the more voiciferous contingent of home supporters.
Not happy to settle on their one-goal advantage, Luton quickly sought to extend it and would have done so had it not been for a last-ditch clearance by Freeman, who prevented an unmarked Cullen from tapping home a far-post cross.
The afternoon was then soured as Benson collapsed in a heap near the touchline. In evident agony, the forward immediately signalled to the bench for help and was eventually carried off on a stretcher.
After a quiet period, the hosts then had a couple of chances to extend their lead before half-time.
Drury was unlucky to see a chipped effort fall narrowly wide of Studer’s left-hand post, having capitalised on a poor clearance by Riley, whilst Ryan Tafazolli also made a timely block from a close-range attempt by Whalley.
The Hatters had an effort cleared off the line from the resulting pressure as they continued to lay siege on Mansfield’s goal in the build up to the interval.
On 42 minutes, in what proved to be the final opportunity of the first period, Fraser Franks almost netted an extraordinary goal when his downfield headed clearance bounced up and had to be plucked off the line by a back-peddling Studer.
After a disappointing first half, Stags’ caretaker boss Adam Murray made a substitution ahead of the re-start with Junior Brown, signed on loan from Oxford United on Thursday, introduced for Rob Taylor.
The change almost paid dividends as Mansfield began to look much livelier going forward.
Within two minutes, Reggie Lambe latched onto a cross by Freeman from the right, and tried his luck with an acrobatic effort that just went a couple of inches over the target.
Moments later, John Still’s side, now attacking towards their own fans, were denied by the frame of the goal as Mark Cullen latched onto Michael Harriman’s cross and did everything right, bar the finish.
There was a good tempo about the game at this stage, but Mansfield should have done more with their next attack. Clements whipped in a good corner from the left towards Riley, who despite connecting well, couldn’t get enough power on his header to properly test the experienced Tyler.
The Stags continued to pose danger as Oliver had an effort blocked by McNulty, before Brown drew Tyler into action with a stinging low, near-post drive.
However, just as Mansfield were starting to get on top and Luton’s vocal home support were seeming to get nervous, the hosts struck against the run of play to go 2-0 up.
Whalley picked up possession on the right flank and hit a cross-cum-shot towards goal, which seemed to pose little danger at first, but ended up clearing Studer and finding the net.
The youngster slid along the floor in celebration in the knowledge that his counterparts’ task of taking any points from the game had become much greater.
Any lingering hopes of a Mansfield comeback were then firmly extinguished only a couple of minutes later, when Whalley struck again to make it 3-0.
On this occasion, the fleet-footed playmaker ghosted in from the right flank and beat two players, before he arrowed a low drive past Studer from about 15-20 yards to put his team in a commanding position.
The rest of the game passed without too much incident. Luton could have added a fourth goal with 10 minutes remaining, when Jonathan Smith’s low shot deflected off Tafazolli and hit the post.
Nevertheless, it was a routine and ultimately comfortable win for the Hatters.
Attendance: 8,418 (294 away supporters).