Lee Ndlovu double sees Brackley Town end 2021 top of National League North
Lee Ndlovu baged a brace to ensure Brackley Town will end 2021 top of the National League North - but depleted Boston United's promotion hopes are still far from over.
The Pilgrims had the chance to close the gap on the Saints to six points, but convincing finishing and stoic defending saw the visitors gain revenge for their recent FA Trophy defeat with a 3-1 win.
While United's hopes of a title charge now look a long shot, having dripped to seventh, they remain in the play-off spots.
For Brackley, their quest for the National League continues as they lead Gateshead by two points.
Ndlovu and James Armson handed the visitors a comfortable and deserved interval lead, before two penalties swung momentum in Boston's favour.
Marcus Dewhurst saved Armson's effort before Danny Elliott converted at the opposite end to tee up a tense final 15 minutes.
Ndlovu wrapped things up in time added on, leaving the Pilgrims rueing wasted chances.
Both sides pulled into Pilgrim Way well rested due to their Boxing Day postponements.
A mixture of Covid, injury and suspension saw Boston's squad missing nine players, Jake Wright jnr, Paul Green, Scott Duxbury, Jordan Burrow, Scott Garner, Jay Rollins, Andi Thanoj, Peter Crook and Jake Wright snr all sidelined.
Craig Elliott added Danny Elliott and Fraser Preston to the starting XI which brushed aside Kidderminster Harriers in the FA Trophy, replacing Burrow and Wright jnr.
Brackley, eliminated by Boston in the previous round of the Trophy, arrived the Jakemans Community Stadium top of the table and eager to prove their 2-0 defeat to title-chasing Gateshead - which ended a nine-game unbeaten streak in the National League North - was just a blip.
Kevin Wilkin made two changes, Connor Franklin and Jordan Cullinane-Liburd in for Gareth Dean and Wesley York.
In an opening 30-odd minutes where the two sides were sizing one another up, Brackley took a two-goal lead courtesy of the only two chances of the game.
Ndlovu put the Saints ahead in the 19th minute as the Pilgrims defence was carved open.
Latching onto a long ball through he played a one-two in the box with Tre Mitford before beating Dewhurst with a low strike at his near post from close range.
Armson doubled the advantage in the 31st minute, darting to the front post where he headed Sherpherd Murombedzi's inswinging corner home.
Dewhurst got down well to deny Mitford as the Saints marched on.
The Pilgrims had displayed neat build-up play but lacked a telling ball into the box, their first real effort of note being Fraser Prestons' free kick, deflected wide for a corner.
Sensing a turning tide, Elliott drove a 20-yarder the wrong side of Danny Lewis' post.
Lewis showed why Brackley have the league's best defensive record as, when the backline were breached and Joe Leesley finally got a shot on target, seconds into the second half, the Saints stopper stretched to fingertip the drive wide.
Murombedzi, booked for timewasting in the first half, was lucky to escape with a talking to after stopping Fraser Preston in his tracks.
Not one of three Saints players opted to halt the United attacker in a similar fashion when he broke into the box, but some neat footwork later he drilled his effort wide.
And when a rare Town mistake gifted Fraser Preston a sight of goal he fluffed his lines, rushing a volley from close range and slicing off target.
Two penalties in as many minutes changed the complexion of the game.
Luke Shiels' trip on Ellis Myles offered Armson the chance to put the result beyond doubt but Dewhurst's save put the wind in United's sails.
Seconds later and referee Darren Rogers pointed to the spot at the other end as Shane Byrne's cross was handled.
Sending Lewis the wrong way, Elliott slotted home his 15th of the season, just the 11th league goal Brackley have conceded this term.
The action was hotting up and Brackley had the ball in the net following Murombedzi's free kick, only for Glenn Walker's effort to be chalked off for handball in the build up.
United came within a whisker of levelling as Matt Tootle burst into the box but, on his weaker left foot, the defender dragged his effort wide.
That strike left United's 2,000-plus fans wondering what may have been as Ndlovu had the final say, outpacing the Boston defence with a powerful run and neat finish beyond Dewhurst.
PILGRIMS: Dewhurst, Tootle, Platt (Dimaio 77), Shiels, Ferguson, Elliott, J. Preston, F. Preston (Lalkovic 73), Leesley (Leake 77), Byrne, Gordon; Subs (not used): Armond, Frestle.
SAINTS: Lewis, Myles, Franklin, Murombedzi, Lomas, Cullinane-Liburd, Lowe, Armson, Ndlovu, Mitford (Yusuf 75), Walker; Subs (not used): Rolt, Putz, Richards, Worby.
REF: Darren Rogers.
ATT: 2,131 (46).