BURTON Albion beat Barnet to record their 10th home win of the season — but were made to work hard for the points by the much-improved Bees.
The Brewers have been excellent at the Pirelli Stadium this season and when Jacques Maghoma scored from the spot after just three minutes, it looked like another swashbuckling performance was on the cards.
But Barnet — missing talismanic player-manager Edgar Davids through illness — had failed to read the script.
Inspired by Ricky Holmes, whose hat-trick demolished Albion at Underhill before Christmas, they set about Burton and dominated the rest of the first half.
After the break, the Brewers improved and Calvin Zola should have added a second before late pressure from the Bees saw them come inches away from an equaliser through substitute Harry Crawford.
Burton, though, had defended stoutly enough to earn the win, with new signing Ian Sharps outstanding alongside Zander Diamond in a new and imposing partnership at centre-half.
It cannot be stated enough how much of a coup landing the 32-year-old is for the Brewers. Alongside Diamond he brought a calm presence to the back four and the duo won practically everything in the air.
When he once got done for pace — as can often happen to big centre-halves — Sharps stuck a long leg out and nicked the ball from the rapid Ibra Sekajja.
With Sharps on board, Albion look well-set for a good tilt at finishing in the top seven.
The return of Stuart Tomlinson in goal also bodes well and he put in a faultless display after replacing the unfortunate Dean Lyness, whose mistake at Northampton proved so costly in the 1-0 defeat two Saturdays ago.
The 27-year-old goalkeeper brings a muscular presence in the area which is vital in League Two football.
Now, all that remains for Burton is to cure their travel sickness and back up the best home record in the division.
Of their 13 wins, only three have come away from the Pirelli.
With tomorrow night’s trip to mid-table Oxford United and Saturday’s journey to relegation-haunted Wimbledon, there is no better chance for the Brewers to pick up some points and throw down the gauntlet to their play-off rivals.
Gary Rowett made three changes to the side which went down at Northampton.
Tomlinson replaced Lyness in goal and Sharps came in for Nathan Stanton at centre-half. Billy Kee returned up front in a 4-4-2 formation, replacing Aaron Webster, who did well in a defensive midfield berth at Sixfields.
Albion flew out of the blocks and the game’s decisive moment arrived after just a minute and 48 seconds.
A big, bombing kick from Tomlinson put David Stephens under pressure and Zola beat him in the air and knocked the ball down to Maghoma.
The midfielder took a touch and when he was about to pull the trigger from seven yards was tripped by Barry Fuller.
Referee Oliver Langford had a great view and one of the easiest decisions of the afternoon as he pointed to the spot.
Fuller was somewhat fortunate to escape with no punishment other than watching Maghoma blast the penalty home low to keeper Graham Stack’s left.
Within two minutes, Barnet should really have been level.
John Oster’s excellent free kick picked out Andy Iro seven yards out but the big centre-half headed straight at Tomlinson, who parried.
It was a warning of things to come from Barnet, for whom Holmes was becoming increasingly influential.
He soon charged into the box and played a one-two with Andy Yiadom before firing wide.
Sharps then looked in trouble against Sekajja but pulled out a superb tackle to nick the ball as the striker was about to cross into the area.
Burton hit back on the half-hour when Damien McCrory found Key with an accurate long pass and the striker turned Yiadom and curled one just wide from 18 yards in the inside-left channel.
Barnet should have levelled on 36 minutes but Sekajja, on loan from Championship Crystal Palace, showed a lack of composure when the ball broke to him eight yards out and he blazed wildly wide.
Albion came out after the second half with renewed purpose and Zola headed over before miscontrolling an Adam Drury cross.
On 54 minutes, Mark Byrne robbed a napping Anthony O’Connor and found Sekajja but he fired over.
Drury mugged Elliot Johnson just after the hour and crossed but Kee’s chest at goal was easily gathered.
Burton put their best move of the match together on 65 minutes, with Robbie Weir beating Byrne and finding Zola in space 15 yards out, but the striker’s shot went wide.
Zola had another good chance on 71 minutes but shot wide before Sharps’ header from a Bell corner flew wide when it looked like he would cap a perfect debut.
Holmes’ cross into the Albion area on 74 minutes caused chaos and the ball broke to Crawford but he could only watch as the ball went agonisingly wide and took any hopes of a point with it.