Admit it – some time around 4pm yesterday, there was a flutter of anxiety in your stomach. Palace led, Watford led, even ailing Leicester would surely collect something against Sheffield Wednesday; meanwhile, we could do nothing but sit helplessly as our midweek calamity was compounded by unhelpful results elsewhere. Second place would no longer be attainable at Burnley; we’d need to win just to regain third.
Then at about 4.20pm, things began to change. Palace were hauled back. Watford were eventually and surprisingly bested. Leicester lost again (heh). All cause for celebration, for no matter how much managers and players dutifully assert that results elsewhere don’t matter, they bloody well do. In the end, none of yesterday morning’s top six won. An uncommonly favourable pattern. So why then was the satisfaction so reserved and tempered?
Because we’re playing Burnley tomorrow. And that never ends well. Or at least, it hasn’t in our last seven meetings.
That sorrowful septet isn’t actually without precedent in Tiger annals, as Aston Villa are currently in possession of a sequence of eight straight wins against City – but that’s far easier to understand than the current run against Burnley. There’ve been some truly rancid displays in among them too, notably the 2-0 Premier League defeat that probably ought to have cost Phil Brown his job, and the 4-1 home defeat that effectively ended all hope of top flight salvation. Oh, and the 4-0 defeat under Nigel Pearson. And the conversion of a two-goal lead into defeat. And…
No more. Runs are made to be broken. We held a world record for the longest time without winning a penalty shoot-out, but eventually did. We broke the television hex, admittedly after a long wait. We won an away game after 30-odd attempts not too long ago. If we’re serious about promotion (and we are) then we must trust that Steve Bruce isn’t troubling himself with unhappy sequences of results and more on how to collect the three points that’ll restore us to the top two and shave Cardiff’s lead to three points.
To do that, an obvious recent deficiency must be addressed – our suddenly porous defence. Ten goals have been shipped in three games, the sloppiest run since 11 were conceded in 270 minutes in September 2009. Of course, mitigating circumstances exist. Bolton was a straightforward freak, while Palace was a bad overall display seasoned by unfortunate officiating. We shouldn’t worry too much, but it still be worth the manager looking at.
Assisting him is the confirmed fitness of James Chester, who was forced out of the defeat at Palace but will be available to line up at Turf Moor. However Corry Evans is missing, which removes the option of restoring him to the side to shore things up a little. Tom Cairney is available, and that’s about it for City – it’s still too early for Matt Fryatt and far too early for Sone Aluko, both of whom are looking at early-May for fitness.
Only the most optimistic of Burnley fans will consider the season likely to end in success. They’re berthed in 11th, with 48 points and safety from the drop having never been a problem. However they’re nine points adrift of 6th, meaning that only an improbable run in their final ten games will lift them into the play-offs. It’s not impossible of course and they won’t have given it up just yet; but only a win tomorrow evening will suffice.
They’ve been undone this season by straightforward inconsistency. A 13-9-14 record isn’t terrible, but they’ve struggled at home with only seven wins there all season. They haven’t recorded a home win since mid-January and have won just once in eight, a spell that’s probably wrecked their chances. So it’s a decidedly off-form Burnley we prepare to face, though they’ll have Chris McCann fit again in midfield. Ex-Tiger Dean Marney is unavailable to do penance for his ungrateful approach in November, while the useful Ross Wallace is also missing.
So let’s sort this Burnley thing out, City. Even the bookies are onto us, with the disparity in ability and league position evidently not enough to persuade them make City favourites – instead, both teams are backable at 9/5, with the draw 12/5. Mind you, after a spate of draws around the turn of the year City haven’t had one for a while – would we take one tomorrow, or we approaching the must-win part of the season? C’mon City.