City progressed to the quarter finals of the League Cup for the second consecutive season – and second time ever – in an and to end tussle with Bristol City at Ashton Gate.
The ground has undergone a remarkable transformation since I visited last in 2008 and boasts three linked stands, the main one housing an extra tier, giving it a similar look to Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium. Like a lot of modern stadiums its handsome but lacking character. That’s beside the point though. It gives a club like Bristol City a capacity upward of 27,000, attracts families, corporates and sponsors and sits proudly in its surroundings playing “now you see me, now you don’t” as you approach up and down Bristol’s rollercoaster-roads.
The hosts made nine changes to their team that beat Blackburn in the Championship on Saturday – clearly seeing an outside shot at the play-offs as a priority – while, thankfully, Mike Phelan picked a strong City team in his desperation to reverse our fortunes after a month of progressively terrible results and pathetic performances. He also reverted to the 3-5-2 formation that we mastered at times under Steve Bruce which sensibly made use of the players we have fit at the moment.
Maguire – Dawson – Davies
Elmohamady – Henriksen – Livermore – Mason – Tymon
Diomande – Hernández
The first half was quiet for the most part with just a couple of moments of real quality in either penalty area. City controlled the ball but rarely looked like breaking through despite much probing. Perhaps we were even one dimensional at times. Like the times when it appears only Ahmed Elmohamady is allowed to put a cross in and the others steadfastly refuse to disobey orders.
We were improved infinitely by having two strikers. Adama Diomande put in the harder yards, stuck his arse into defenders, pulled them into wide areas and took some knocks. That allowed Abel Hernández to work around the penalty area and his quality showed throughout as he probably had more touches than he has in the Premier League all season. The two linked up early on for Hernández to drag a shot just wide from the edge of the box and the favour was returned several times.
The three at the back for City defended bravely for the most part but Bristol City could exploit the space behind the wing backs at times. It’s fair to say young Josh Tymon got to grips with it quickly though and made some superb tackles in the second half. Aaron Wilbraham scuffed a shot when given a decent sight of goal and Bobby Reid fired a vicious shot too high on the volley after smashing a first effort into the gut of one of his mates. Those chances came either side of the moment of real quality in the half. Markus Henriksen attempted to dink a ball over the top for Diomande. Moore headed it out but Hernández was on to it in a flash, strode to his left and unleashed a superb strike from 25 yards that looped over the keeper but just didn’t dip enough and smashed the crossbar.
Their left back Joe Bryan looked dangerous throughout the half and produced some beautiful touches but he picked up the first booking for a bizarre challenge on Elmo on the half way line. Bryan appeared to have the ball at his feet but threw himself at Elmo anyway with a scissoring challenge that annoyed the home crowd and management but was a ludicrous thing to do. Ref Keith Stroud, given day release from The Borrowers, was sharp enough to read the situation.
The game was meandering to half time when City took the lead in unlikely fashion. Ryan Mason’s near post corner from the right was cleared by a Brizzle defender. Mason trotted over to the left to swing the second corner beyond the far post and Harry Maguire rose above everyone to nod in his first goal for The Tigers [0-1]. We don’t do tempting delivery from corners but Mason obviously hasn’t got the message yet. The hosts responded well in the few minutes before the break and Curtis Davies was booked for a daft challenge in our half as a little bit of pressure came our way.
The second half was barely underway when City doubled the lead. Hernández forced a corner on the right and as Mason lined it up, the lights in the stands went out plunging the City fans into darkness. That just meant the penalty area lit up like a spotlight as Mason’s brilliant delivery was hammered home by the head of Michael Dawson [0-2].
Mason hasn’t found his feet at City yet. He still looks like he’s never met half of his teammates before and plays passes to people who aren’t there at times but he can’t half whip a ball in from wide areas. O’Donnell even had to make a save to stop one corner going straight in.
The goal brought a strong response from Bristol City and they didn’t take long to introduce Tammy Abraham and Lee Tomlin off the bench to add to their threat. The game became stretched very quickly and it was end to end with City spurning several chances to seal it while keeping them out through various means.
Marlon Pack put a free kick just wide of Eldin Jakupović’s left hand post and then curled a shot just wide of the same post. Davies made two blocks in a row after Diomande had wasted possession on the edge of their box, Abraham dragged a shot wide, Jakupović saved brilliantly from O’Dowda after a Dawson block fell straight to his feet and then got down brilliantly to save one on one from Tomlin after he’d danced through a couple of pathetic tackles on the edge of our box. Tomlin’s chunky but he can’t half play and his vision and dribbling ability improved their attack a hundred-fold. We’ve been linked with him a few times in recent years and he’d add something we don’t have behind our striker(s). Henriksen looks a tidy player but he didn’t show anything like the creativity of Tomlin opposite a packed defence.
City looked dangerous on the counter and should have wrapped the game up. Diomande, who put in a great shift but lets himself down often with poor (or no) decision making in the final third, shot wide after Hernández had put the ball on a plate for him on the right-hand side of the area. Hernández also slid in Mason down the same side but his wicked shot was blocked by Flint whose probably still stinging now, while Abel himself was denied by a goal-line clearance after rounding the keeper who he later hit with a wicked left footed effort after a driving run in behind Flint from wide on the left.
Just when it looked like we’d seen off their late charge and we’d subbed both excellent strikers to waste a bit of time, the fourth official stuck up five minutes on the board and Tomlin outran Tom Huddlestone (ha!) and the rest of our defence from deep and lashed in a shot at the near post [1-2]. Suddenly it was “Typical City” time as we conceded two corners, lost all ability to pass the ball to anyone in a black shirt and invited pressure. With just about the last kick Reid’s shot was turned goalwards by Abraham and Davies kicked it off the line. Hull City. Doing nowt easy since 1904.
We deserved the win overall and there was plenty of promise in the change of system and the dual threat up front. We probably shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it was only against Bristol City’s second string and while they’re a neat side who play the way their manager demands – they’re no Watford.
Jake Livermore was the pick of our players. He won plenty of tackles and read their intentions often. At Watford, he’ll need far more help defensively than he got from Henriksen and Mason here or from Huddlestone last Saturday though. The answer might be to put Sam Clucas back in midfield and let Tymon continue at left wing-back. He won’t let anyone down.
Next best was Jakupović. As he left the field he signalled to tell the City fans applauding him off that he’s number one. I think he’s right. This was another excellent showing from him. While I don’t think David Marshall has particularly been to blame for the goals we’ve conceded, I never really thought Jakupović should have been dropped in the first place. When we wonder where our great team spirit has gone since August – moves like that contribute greatly.
Anyone but Arsenal.
Rick Skelton – report first appeared on the Tiger Chat mailing list