By Dane Vincent
Notts County's undefeated run was halted this evening by promotion hunting Rochdale.
Ben Davies opened the scoring for the Magpies, latching onto a teasing Craig Westcarr cross.
A quick-fire double from Chris Dagnall and Chris O'Grady sent the home side into interval 2-1 ahead.
The second half saw opportunities fall few and far between, and as a result County lost ground on the division's leading pack.
With only four points separating the teams, this was set to be a hot contest on a damp, chilly night at Spotland. Hans Backe's team had recorded five draws in their last six League Two outings and were eager to record three points, whilst extending their unbeaten run to ten games at the same time.
Ade Akinbiyi was brought into the side in the place of the suspended Lee Hughes and Westcarr replaced Matt Ritchie on the left wing, as the Magpies stuck with the same adaptable 4-3-3 formation utilised in the Aldershot and Bury games.
Although Notts dominated against the Shots at the weekend, they were required to weather an early storm with the home team closing down energetically and enjoying some early pressure.
Inside the opening stages Will Atkinson turned cleverly on the edge of the box, made space for himself and unleashed a low effort. Springing to his right, Kasper Schmeichel took no risks on the oily surface, pushing the ball behind.
On the break Notts earned themselves a corner, and nearly scored as a result of it. Ben Davies' lofted centre was met by the head of Neal Bishop but he could only rattle frame of the goal.
Moments later the travelling County faithful were on their feet again. Tidy link-up play between Akinbiyi and Luke Rodgers led to Westcarr swerving the ball just wide from the edge of the box.
It was an exciting end-to-end opening at Spotland with both sides carving out opportunities. However, the home side looked the most threatening, particularly through their top-scorer Dagnall's dribbling.
He found room on the edge of the area to cannon an effort against the underside of the crossbar. The ball failed to cross the line and was scrambled away, to the relief of the beaten Schmeichel.
The woodwork was taking a bit of a beating at both ends and Lee was next up. From another dangerous Davies corner, he thundered a header against the post.
The Magpies were proving to be somewhat unpredictable in their offensive play. Westcarr, Rodgers and Davies were all interchanging positions and reverting into a 4-4-2 structure on occasions.
Drifting onto the right, Westcarr fired a cross towards the back post, which eluded everyone - except Davies. The creative playmaker popped up to prod into the net from close range.
Celebrations were short-lived, as up the other end Dagnall won his team a spot-kick with some more inventive dribbling. Jamie Clapham was adjudged to have tripped the front-man, despite appearing to poke the ball to safety.
The nine goal striker stepped up confidently to smash into the right corner. Schmeichel guessed correctly but was unable to keep out the strike.
More misery followed when a collision between the two County centre-backs, Lee and Stephen Hunt, allowed former Magpie O'Grady through on goal. Shifting the ball to the left of the outspread Schmeichel, he was able to slide the ball into an open goal.
Goalmouth action was scarce after the interval, as Keith Hill's team took a more reserved approach. An instinctive clearance from the newly introduced John Thompson and a harmless Clapham free-kick proved to be most exciting moments inside the opening 25 minutes.
Backe introduced Ritchie and Karl Hawley in an attempt to instigate more creativity into his side's offensive play, which was proving to be largely unfruitful.
Hawley, with his first touch, nearly set-up Clapham for an equaliser. Bishop's effort from distance fell into the path of the tricky striker, who intelligently fed the ball into the feet of Clapham, but his skidding strike skimmed wide of the upright.
Notts were throwing more and more players forward with the hope of salvaging something from the game. Rochdale, on the break, were once more looking lethal, forcing a number of fine blocks by the Magpies rearguard.
Advancing well forward, Moloney wriggled free of a handful of defenders to provide Ritchie with a golden opportunity with a well-placed delivery. The on-loan Portsmouth winger, striking first time, lashed over.
Desperation ensued as County camped in the visitors' half with four minutes added time left to play. Hawley and Moloney both shot from distance, neither testing Tom Heaton.
Akinbiyi should have levelled the tie when grounded cross was fed perfectly into his path - six yard from goal. He failed to convert the chance and side-footed straight into the hands of the grateful Dale stopper.
The Magpies slip to seventh position in the table and are now seven points adrift of the top three.
They will certainly look to lift their spirits with a win in the FA Cup on Saturday away at Bournemouth.
Man of the Match: Ben Davies
Notts County: Kasper Schmeichel, Brendan Moloney, Graeme Lee, Neal Bishop, Ben Davies, Jamie Clapham, Stephen Hunt (Thompson 46), Luke Rodgers (Ritchie 60), Craig Westcarr, Johnnie Jackson (Hawley 75), Ade Akinbiyi.
Substitutes: Russell Hoult, Mike Edwards, John Thompson, Ricky Ravenhill, Karl Hawley, Matt Ritchie, Delroy Facey.
Scorer(s): Davies (35)
Yellow Card(s): Jackson (10), Lee (14), Hunt (45)
Rochdale: Tom Heaton, Scott Wiseman, Matt Flynn, Nathan Stanton, Craig Dawson, Jason Kennedy, Jason Taylor, Will Buckley (Toner 86), Will Atkinson (Higginbotham 74), Chris O'Grady, Chris Dagnall.
Substitutes: Danny Taberner, Rory McArdle, Chris Brown, Ciaran Toner, Kallum Higginbotham, Scott Spencer.
Scorer(s): Dagnall (41), O'Grady (45)
Yellow Card(s): None