PREVIEW: Newcastle United v Hull City AFC

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As we continue to worry and fight over our club’s very name, it’s gratifying to be able to use Premier League football as a distraction as well as the usual source of hedonistic weekend activity, and there are few better away trips in the game than a jaunt to St James’ Park.

The lunchtime strippers in child-friendly pubs, the ludicrous vertigo, palpitation and cramp inducing quantity of stairs to the away end, the enjoyable confusion over whether the Toon’s chronic lack of honours entitles them to the “big club” status they and others claim, all contribute to a fine footballing day. And now we have a Northumberland son in charge, a man turned down by his boyhood club as a youth and forced to go to Gillingham instead, ready to take on this latest challenge.

Steve Bruce has much time for Newcastle United, a reason why Sunderland fans didn’t especially take to him even when things slightly further south than tomorrow’s venue were going well for him. He’s always been conscious of keeping his Geordie accent and mannerisms and never tires of detailing how he used to sneak into St James’ Park as a kid and dreamed of playing for them while kicking centre forwards in the air for the famous Wallsend Boys Club.

So this occasion will be a mega one for him. It is for City too, as we’ve yet to get a point or even a goal on the road, but so far we’ve only been to Chelsea and Manchester City, where defeat was expected and we got away with pride and only minor damage to the goal difference.

Newcastle, despite their excellence two seasons ago that got them to fifth, are only just recovering from a year that festered like a sore, with in-fighting, injuries, a distracting European campaign and the sale to Chelsea of their best centre forward all nearly getting them relegated last season. They have since also re-appointed Joe Kinnear, a man who boasted about his contacts book and the signings he could get as a result, prior to acquiring no permanent signings at all. Then they had to do without their most gifted player as his commitment was questioned while Arsenal declared an interest. Things seemed to be sinking towards a depth that would drown lesser clubs, but finally the put-upon manager Alan Pardew claims to have everyone fit whom he needs, and they were tremendous in winning at Aston Villa last week.

City go into the game needing to make changes. They are enforced, thanks to Robert Koren’s sickeningly-timed broken foot and a compassionate period of absence afforded to Maynor Figueroa. Presumably a long-awaited return for Joe Dudgeon as a like-for-like replacement for the Honduran is in the offing, as none of the current back-up defenders can play at left back, but replacing Koren represents more of a dilemma. George Boyd will feel like he has a claim to stake, having looked sharp in his substitute appearances, but Stephen Quinn was really good against Cardiff City last week and may be the safer option for a difficult away game. Then there’s Yannick Sagbo, back after his three-match ban, and his involvement will hinge on how forgiving Bruce is and how attacking he wants his side to be.

The omens are good, should you believe in them. There have been only three League games between the two at St James’ Park since World War II, and City have won two of them, including the last one in September 2008 courtesy of Marlon King’s brace and Newcastle fans’ emphasis that day on protesting to their owners rather than cheering on their team. Mind you, their team was dreadful – and Kinnear was in charge of it.

Bookies have 5/6 on a home win and City’s odds of getting all three points are at 10/3, with the draw at 5/2. It is the kind of game which will give City a truly clear indication of how up for the challenge they are.

PREVIEW: City v Cardiff

aclubnotabrand

There’ve been lots of exciting games between City and Cardiff of late. Last season’s draining dénouement. Penultimate day survival at Ninian Park. The 4-1 win that got Phil Brown the job earlier in the same season. The 2-0 (just after) St David’s Day defeat and subsequent hi-jinks in the carpark. One of many potential last ever games in 1998. The 4-3 win in 1993.

It’s hard to imagine this game will be quite so memorable, barring something rather improbable. It’s a winnable game, and therefore vitally important…making Mr Allam’s comments in the midweek press all the most cretinously ill-timed. There’ll be another protest at West Park gates at 2.30pm, and we urge anyone who attaches importance to the name Hull City AFC to attend – even if you’d rather not go the whole hog and deliberately miss the kick-off.

But however much football you choose to watch, it should be good. Cardiff will come fancying a win, so you’d expect both teams to go for it. And why not? Our aspirations are identical: to survive, ideally without it ever getting particularly hairy next Spring. Single points aren’t unhelpful, but the fillip of a win for either side tomorrow would provide a midtable position and no little confidence with the arduous winter slog inching closer.

Both sides have goalkeeping issues that may require resolving in the morning. Allan McGregor has been struggling with a groin injury all week and may be replaced by Steve Harper, recipient of a testimonial at Newcastle a few days ago. David Marshall was McGregor’s stand-in for the Scotland side for their win in Macedonia, however he injured a hip doing so and may not make it.

Gedo hasn’t yet received international clearance, while Yannick Sagbo is still banned – that aside, City are pretty much at full strength. Cardiff too are fairly untroubled by absentees, with Peter Odemwingie a potential debutant. He’ll do well to dislodge Fraizer Campbell though, whose brace helped them to beat Man City last month. Incidentally, can we please not boo him? Not only because you just know it’ll end up with him scoring, but because he’s one of the Wembley heroes, without whom 24/5/2008 wouldn’t have happened. It’ll make us sound stupid, small-time and ungrateful. Ta.

Anyway…much to look forward to. As the home side between two reasonably evenly-matched sides, City are narrow favourites, with 6/4 available on the Tigers. Both Cardiff and the draw can be backed at 23/10. All three results eminently possible, the prize a considerable one – we can’t wait. What a pity that the foolish comments of one man has been the topic of conversation since yesterday.

C’mon City.

And see you all at West Park gates for 2.30pm.

PREVIEW: Manchester City v Hull City AFC

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And for the second time in three Premier League games, we steel ourselves for an afternoon of total anonymity. Not on the pitch, hopefully, but certainly off it and especially during the pre-match period when the pundits will refer to us as if we were just there to make up the numbers. Because again we are playing one of the Sky Super Mega Fandabidozee Five (or Six, depending on whether Tottenham now count).

Manchester City, always one of football’s most interesting clubs, host the Tigers in the weekend’s early kick off. It isn’t on Sky, but on BT Sport, thereby prompting many a City fan unwilling to fork out £41 for a ticket trying to find a boozer that is running this new channel. That as maybe, the emphasis for the TV types will be to talk exclusively about the team irritatingly monikered nationally as ‘City’ – it’s not as if the suffix isn’t common or anything; oh hang on, we can’t say that now – who have a new manager, new expectations and, both fascinatingly and worryingly, an early inconsistency this season.

They butchered Newcastle United 4-0 in their opening game before losing 3-2 to Cardiff City last week. This is a great test of whether one’s glass is half full or half empty if a member of the Tiger Nation is assessing the situation. The half full mob would say that Cardiff’s win proves Manchester City are vulnerable, gettable, strewn with weaknesses; the half empty brigade will simply expect a massive, damaging backlash. And the last thing we need is another humiliating pummeling at the Etihad Stadium.

While the press bring up, yet again, that team talk from 2008 (while forgetting Jimmy Bullard’s savagely timed riposte to all the bruhaha a season later), we’ll concentrate on the here and now. City – that’s us, by the way, in case you’re a Manchester City fan butting in – have never won a league game at the Etihad or Maine Road but any time is a good time to break a hoodoo. Steve Bruce has one big decision to make, having seen pretty much everyone in the starting XI at Leyton Orient in midweek starkly show that they’re not up to the task of representing the club in the Premier League.

That decision involves who plays instead of the suspended Yannick Sagbo. Depending on the formation, Bruce will choose either George Boyd, who can do the wider, silkier stuff that Sagbo provided well at Chelsea for a spell; or he’ll recall Danny Graham, who is a better fit if a straight down the line centre forward is required. Whoever doesn’t get the gig will be on the bench; the question mark then goes next to the array of currently nonplussed back-up strikers as to who gets the fresh sub’s vacancy created. Matt Fryatt probably ought to have it, but Nick Proschwitz will probably get it.

The hosts welcome back defender Matija Nastasic in place of Javi Garcia, while there will be interest from the away end in Alvaro Negredo, the striker whose goal at Cardiff will probably earn him a starting place, as he allegedly nearly joined City in the summer of 2009 for money we patently didn’t have.

Bullard’s nicely celebrated pen earned a point in the Tigers’ last game on Mancunian territory but generally this fixture is free of worthy history or notable events from the pre-Premier League era; indeed, this is only the ninth season ever the two teams have been in the same division. It’s also free of excitement on the predictions front, according to the bookies – we’re a colossal 14/1 to win this, with 2/11 on a home win and 6/1 for the draw. At worst, a repeat of Chelsea would suffice – keep the goal difference manageable, suffer no injuries, get out with heads up, pass it a bit – but again, if you are looking at liquid in your tumbler rather than air, there could be more to gain yet.

PREVIEW: Hull City AFC v Norwich City

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Premier League football returns to Hull after an absence of just over three years tomorrow, and brings with it one of better examples we could be learning from.

That’s Norwich, whose own return to the top flight saw the customary prophesies of doom proffered and swiftly disproven. A brace of comfortable midtable finishes for the Canaries has seen them almost become part of the Premier League furniture, to the extent at which their summer shopping totalled north of £20m, bringing in genuine quality and surely cementing their position in the mini-league between eighth and 13th.

It’s probably fair to say that we’re not in direct competition with Norwich – not yet, at least. Everyone knows the formula: get up, stay up, try to improve season on season until you’ve gone as far as you realistically can. Last time we did the first two of things in some style before tumbling at the third; the aim is to learn from that error and do a Norwich, not another City.

However, just because they’ll probably finish above us doesn’t make this a very winnable game, for it most certainly is. A home match against midtable opposition always will be, certainly in comparison to last week and next week’s formidable assignments. That does rather put pressure on City…slip up against Norwich, and the likelihood is that our opening three games will be pointless.

Even allowing for the standard of two of those opponents, that’d be a slightly deflating beginning. So those who say that the season begins tomorrow probably have a point. It’s the first time we’ve ever met in the top flight, and both sides probably approach the game in decent heart. Despite the chastening start at Chelsea, City recovered admirably to end the match beaten but not embarrassed, while Norwich’s 2-2 home draw with Everton last week was a decent point harvested from a good game.

Already, Norwich have a couple of injury concerns. Elliott Bennett is lucklessly ruled out until the New Year with a knee injury, while City’s summer target Gary Hooper is also unavailable. Mind you, with Johan Elmander, Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Luciano Becchio in the squad, they look well covered. You’d expect Norwich to view the game as being every bit as winnable as us, so we probably look forward to them attacking.

It goes without saying that City will look to be on the front foot too. While perhaps the beneficiary of Chelsea easing off, Tom Huddlestone was unquestionably City’s star performer at Stamford Bridge and seems certain to start – Robert Koren and David Meyler’s places are both under threat, not just from Huddlestone but also Jake Livermore. Danny Graham may be another candidate for dropping down to the bench, though his primary problem at Chelsea was a complete lack of service rather than anything necessarily disappointing on his part.

City’s recent record against Norwich is a decent one, with only one defeat in the last seven encounters. The most memorable was probably the 2-0 win for City at Carrow Road in September 2010 to end a run of 30-something away games without a win. Each side have a notable former centre-half from the other – Steve Bruce is the City manager, while Michael Turner will line up in yellow against us.

City start the game as favourites, with 6/4 being offered on a home win. Norwich are 9/4, while a draw – one that neither side would regard as a disaster – is 12/5.

And finally…the ‘Ulltras are organising a protest about the club’s proposed renaming. The plan is to assemble at West Park Gates at 2.30pm, for a slow amble to the ground peacefully voicing opposition to any change to the name Hull City AFC. We’ll see you all there – and we’ll dole out some stickers too, if we have any left…

PREVIEW: City v Cardiff

Proschwitz, Nick (v Bristol C 19-3-2013) 1

And so it comes down to this.

It’s not City’s final chance to achieve promotion, but it’s their last chance to secure the automatic promotion that looked a given just two short weeks ago. To be in the play-offs now would feel dreadfully anti-climactic, and while it still offers a route to the Premier League, it’s a far tougher one than City ought to have already traversed.

But no more ifs and buts about the grisly trio of games that have conspired to take it to the final day. Just as we’d all have taken the play-offs in August, so we’d have jumped at the chance to enter Saturday 4th May with the equation of victory = promotion. Forget Wolves, Bristol and Barnsley. One win. In a season studded with them, please, just one more win.

Things are seemingly against City. On-form-again Watford have what looks unhappily like a gimme at home to Leeds, so favours emanating from Vicarage Road look unlikely. Meanwhile City are at home to the champions, the division’s stand-out side, and are in a sudden trough. We’re doing it the hard way – the City way, you could ruefully conclude.

Other omens are little better. Captain and primary midfield goal threat Robert Koren seems unlikely to play, having not trained all week. He may make the bench, but his absence from the starting XI is damaging to City’s inventiveness and detrimental in terms of experience on the pitch. Elsewhere, Jack Hobbs and Paul McShane are tussling for the final centre-back berth alongside Chester and Faye, while up front it’s probably any two from Simpson, Boyd and Proschwitz, as Gedo remains injured.

Cardiff aren’t without injury worries of their own. Craig Bellamy has an Achilles problem and won’t participate, while Matthew Connolly, Heiðar Helguson and captain Mark Hudson are also unavailable through injury. Better news for the Bluebirds is that Nicky Maynard may be fit for the squad, while there’ll be a place for fit-again ex-Tiger Fraizer Campbell (seriously – he’s one of the Wembley Heroes so don’t boo him, if only because you know what’ll happen next).

Whatever the perfunctory statements of their manager Malky Mackay, this is a game of little importance for Cardiff. They’re already up, already champions and most of his squad are unlikely to care too deeply about his Watford links. How that’ll actually play out is unknowable, of course. Cardiff were extremely accommodating in what was to them a dead rubber six years ago at Ninian Park, and you’d like to think a similarly selfless approach will be adopted. Or will the release of pressure inspire them to one final hurrah? Only those in the Cardiff dressing room can guess, and they aren’t telling.

Recent history tells us fairly little. Historically, City lead 21-19 in victories since the first meeting in 1920. Cardiff have only won one of their five visits to the Circle, a 2-0 success two years ago. No side has really had the edge in the past decade or so. The league table offers few unexpected insights either. Their title has been won largely on the back of a frighteningly good home record, but ten wins on the road is hardly shabby. Put simply, we’re playing the best team in the division.

Yet the gloom that washed over us following the Barnsley debacle isn’t shared everywhere. City are no longer than 11/10 to secure the win that’ll guarantee promotion. The draw is 13/5, which Cardiff are 3/1. Watford…well they’re strongly odds-on. It all means that the Tigers are rated as 2/5 for promotion (which of course allows for play-off success). Yes, that does feel a bit short, doesn’t it?

But no matter. Ninety minutes separate this marvellous side of ours from the promotion its season-long efforts deserve. All four stands are sold out, the weather’s set fine and one way or another, it’ll be a day to remember for years to come. For what we hope will be the final time this season: come on City.

PREVIEW: Barnsley v City

brucewise

How do you preview a game when the requirements are unknown – indeed, when we don’t even know if we’ll require anything at all?

You don’t. Not really. This pre-empts tonight’s game between Leicester and Watford, and you already know the permutations. A home win: City are promoted. A draw: City need a point tomorrow. An away win: oh shit.

When you consider that the Tiger Nation isn’t even able to agree upon what it wants tonight, the situation becomes more complicated. Some, rather greedily, want tomorrow’s game at Oakwell to matter – a rather cocksure approach, but you can see their point. It’d be amazing to get a win we need; less so to win when events elsewhere have already guaranteed the “P”. Others, stressed beyond endurance, just want it over, and for tomorrow to be a party, not an ordeal. No comment from us.

Comments aplenty from Steve Bruce though. His side were awfully uptight against Bristol City last week, a fact recognised and hopefully remedied during a week of apparent relaxation. He thinks we’ll need something tomorrow. He may be right, and it’s therefore correct that the preparations should be for that eventuality.

He’ll be shuffling his pack a little, too. Jack Hobbs has an injury to the same knee he badly damaged a year ago, meaning the somehow-fit-again Paul McShane will play. Gedo is out with a nagging foot injury, while Robert Koren is not likely to start. That’ll mean a recall for Corry Evans, and a likely start for Jay Simpson with George Boyd up front. Barnsley have better news on the availability front. Ballslinger Rory Delap, Robert Edwards and Kelvin Etuhu should all be fit, though Stephen Dawson is still banned.

This fixture is perfectly level throughout history, with 39 wins each and 22 draws from the 100 meetings since 1905. We’ve played twice this season, both at the Circle, and with each team recording a 1-0 win. Since 1990 there’s only been one draw, and there’ve been some real highs and lows in meetings at this ground – the 2-1 Championship win in 2004 when Michael Keane scored a late winner, the 3-1 win en route to promotion in 2008 – but also the hideous 0-3 loss in the relegation battle of 2006/7. City lost a shade unluckily at Oakwell last season, 2-1.

It’s worth remembering that this result matters not only to us. An epic burst of form at the start of 2013 gave Barnsley a real chance of avoiding the drop, but the extraordinary tightness of the division’s lower reaches mean that they remain in desperate trouble, presently 23rd. Defeat tomorrow could effectively relegate them if results elsewhere are unfavourable; it’d certainly put the matter out of their hands.

So, while a trip to a side in the bottom three may superficially appeal, Oakwell’s anxiety won’t be restricted to the away end. That scintillating spurt aside, it’s been an unhappy season for Barnsley. Nine defeats on their own turf is a damaging statistic, with their 24 goals at home the joint lowest tally in the division – they’ve actually been more prolific on their travels. Contrast that with City, who’ve got the joint best points tally away from home, and there’s reason to suppose that even a Watford win tonight may not keep the battle alive until the final day.

“Ah, but TypicalCity”, comes the instant refrain. Well, yes. Like most football fans, we’re programmed to anticipate the worst. This isn’t really a Typical City side – check the league table if you doubt that. Nonetheless, the prospect of City needing to beat Cardiff on the final day while Leeds chortlingly lay down at Watford is too ghastly for words. If we don’t do it this weekend (or have it done for us), well, Typical City indeed.

As we saw earlier in the week, the bookies fancy City, strongly. The Tigers’ price for victory tomorrow has been cut to just 7/5, with Barnsley now out to 2/1. A draw is 12/5. Might that be the value if Watford also draw tonight? Your choice. And promotion itself? No more than 1/12 is on offer. Some even go 1/33. By the time a 5,500-strong deputation heads to South Yorkshire, it may already be over. Hopefully, the race won’t last beyond 5pm tomorrow.

One more time: c’mon City.

PREVIEW: City v Bristol City

brucewise

So, this is it then. Win tonight and we’re up. Except we’re not really of course, but it does feel like it, and only freakishness bordering on farce would then stop Steve Bruce’s side becoming the second Hull City team in five years – and the second in 109 years, too – to gain promotion to English football’s top division.

The problem is that we know freakishness and farce can follow City around like a puppy. Bristol City, respectable opponents tonight but already relegated, could realistically snaffle something tonight at the KC and then Watford make some ground tomorrow. Then it’s Barnsley away, and a fellow Yorkshire outfit fighting for their lives. Then it’s the champions-elect and … oh, you know.

Everyone who doesn’t bleed black and amber thinks we’re up. This includes the media and the rest of football; Gianfranco Zola has already started talking about winning the Championship outright next season (suggesting he doesn’t fancy his team’s chances in the play-offs, which must seriously have annoyed Watford fans). We know we’re not up. The defeat at Wolves shows were capable of a mighty stumble, albeit one more Mary Decker than Devon Loch, at this stage. Fortunately, Watford are stumbling simultaneously, and they are the only team realistically able to overhaul us with nine points left to play for. If we do it via default, then so be it. But let’s just do it.

It feels bizarre that we could be preparing the promotion party (if not quite starting it) with Bristol City as our opponents, live on Sky. Their fans were very loud at Wembley five years ago, and very gracious in defeat afterwards, especially as their team dominated the second half and were (arguably) worth an equaliser. We can’t begin to imagine how they’re feeling now, five years later. We’ve had financial setbacks that have nearly cost us our club, but our biggest footballing heartaches down the years have come from relegations – most of which were obvious weeks in advance – than last-ditch avoidances of promotion. To go to Wembley, with the Premier League awaiting, lose, and then see your club not come even close to a similar challenge afterwards prior to demotion back to the third tier must be incredibly tough to take. We wish them well, genuinely – but only after tonight. It’s sport, after all.

Bruce has had his say in a couple of the national papers today about how he has achieved his success with City this season, arguing his case for old-school management while not dismissing the technological and scientific aspects of the modern game. It’s gratifying to know he can send an email, and we’ll all sleep easier for that. His success, to us, is down to simple instructions, a willingness to adapt, accommodation of really good players and an eye for a bargain. The only true downside – not a failure though – of the season has been our goals tally; a lot of 1-0 wins, especially away from home, are useful and we take every one of them in celebration, but it’s because of those that we still have to cast an eye on the table even if we do beat our opponents tonight. Losing Matt Fryatt at the start of the season and Sone Aluko midway through it has, of course, been crucial on that score.

Fryatt scored in this fixture last season and may get the opportunity to do so again. He has been on the bench for the last two games after his long recovery from Achilles surgery, and now could be the time to throw him in from the start, assuming we believe that a striker needing to be re-introduced to the game is best suited to playing a team and defence already with their shoulder slumped and fate sealed. Robert Koren is injured, so Bruce does need to do something fresh with the attack, and this may also involve giving George Boyd a rest, with the January signing from Peterborough looking a bit dishevelled in the last two matches.

Elsewhere, there appears to be little need for change. Everyone’s fit, Corry Evans is still suspended, and so the midfield and defence won’t alter. Bristol City, managed by the redoubtable Sean O’Driscoll, have Liam Fontaine and Stephen Pearson unavailable with ankle injuries but should welcome back Marvin Elliott after a back problem.

City are, as something of a side issue, chasing a first double over the Robins in 48 years, having won at Ashton Gate earlier in the season, again before the Sky cameras. The recent record at the KC is good, with two wins in the last two seasons, but Bristol City managed a couple of draws before that, though they haven’t won in Hull since a 3-2 win at Boothferry Park in 1996 as City sank relentlessly into the bottom division.

The bookies think a City victory is worth 2/5 tonight; the away win is 15/2 and the draw, which the Tigers simply don’t consider, is priced at 10/3. The cameras are in place, the city is trembling with expectation; any result that betters Watford’s tomorrow will be enough to take us up. Over to you, City.

PREVIEW: Wolves v City

But for our rather middling goal difference, realism could have ensured Hull City were promoted tonight. As it is, a win at Molineux and a defeat for Watford will make the much-coveted Premier League return all but secure, with just one further point needed from the remaining three games.

That’s the bald factual angle of it all, but City aren’t usually like this. Indeed, it’d actually be quite refreshing for the club to be in exactly this aforementioned position come ten o’clock tonight. We can’t account for Watford’s actions, of course, but we can certainly account for our own. And this is a game City should win.

Look at Wolverhampton Wanderers and wipe your brow in relief, because this could easily have been City. They are staring at a second straight relegation after some truly daft managerial appointments took them from firefighters in the top flight to almost dead certs for the third. They nearly got Steve Bruce, of course, but instead chose not to appoint him, and two deadbeat, depthless managers later, they are in real lumber. Dean Saunders, the current incumbent, is not at great fault for their current predicament and will be seen as ideal to get them out of League One if they do go down, but nevertheless he and others represent an episode in Wolves’ distinguished history that will have given their fans sleepless night after night. They went through this in the mid-1980s and prayed it would never need to happen again.

When City were relegated in 2010, we were skint, humiliated and on the point of collapse. A judicious managerial appointment  in Nigel Pearson made sure that the freefall was discontinued, and that was absolutely key. The club knew that instead of trying to make headlines and noises about where their ambitions lay, they should dust themselves down, accept their fate and start again. By appointing Terry Connor and then Ståle Solbakken, the cheap option followed by the wildcard option, Wolves didn’t accept their fate correctly.

Yet all of this doesn’t make Wolves any less dangerous tonight. They still have a large clutch of players from not just last season, but the season before, when they stayed up on the final day under Mick McCarthy. They aren’t down yet, and a win against the Tigers could take them out of the bottom three, depending on what occurs elsewhere on what is a pleasingly complete night of Championship fixtures. City, being City, will have iffy moments at Molineux because it’s the nature of the beast. But a victory should, just by dint of league positioning and form, be very much in the Tigers’ grasp tonight.

Watford go to Millwall and Cardiff City, who will be promoted tonight if they better the Hornets’ result, are at home to the form side of the division in Charlton Athletic. An awful lot could be decided tonight, both mathematically and emotionally. It’s that bit of the season.

Bruce, diplomatic but gleeful when interviewed after Saturday’s win at Ipswich, has some decisions to take. Corry Evans is suspended for two games so maybe, finally, a long overdue chance at the base of the midfield awaits Ahmed Fathi, who looks consistently good when shoring up the centre of the team as a substitute. Robert Koren’s match-winning substitute appearance at Portman Road might prove enough to get him back in the side, though it would be difficult to say who is expendable right now.

Wolves are without Jamie O’Hara after his straight red card against Huddersfield on Saturday while Bakary Sako – who played well at the KC earlier this season – and former City target Sylvan Ebanks-Blake are out for the rest of the season. In their side will be Stephen Hunt, back in favour at Molineux after a tough spell on and off the pitch and one of the (very) few bonafide heroes of City’s wretched second season in the Premier League, who left the KC for Wolves that summer with everyone’s thanks and blessing.

City last won at Molineux, poetically enough, in the last promotion season, courtesy of a Dean Windass penalty; indeed, that season we did the double over Wolves for only the second time in our history. Completing a third tonight would prove crucial and notable in so many ways, for so many parties. The bookies think we’ll do it to the tune of a 13/10 shot, with Wolves at 2/1 and the draw at 23/10, though given we haven’t drawn a game since the mid-January trip to Peterborough, that one feels unlikelier by the week.

You can pay at the gate now if you don’t have a concessionary right, which is a grown-up and smart move by the club and the local police force – not that we suggest any other constabulary should take note of this – and this will mean a colossal turnout at a great ground for, hopefully, another key occasion in a season that’s been a joy to observe. One senses this website may break a record or two of its own if we get three points in the West Midlands later. C’mon City.

PREVIEW: Ipswich v City

Jay Simpson

And then there were five games left.

Five wins = promotion. Four wins and a draw = promotion. Anything less, and the door is open for Watford to steal second place. Fancy our chances? City have only collected 13 or more points from 15 once this season, in December – mainly because this has been a remarkably draw-free season. Draws aren’t much use to us now either.

Though it’s sometimes overlooked given the glory that followed, we’ve been in this position before. 2007/8 may have ended in sun-streaked glory at Wembley, but second place was ours to lose that season too. Three wins from the final three games and it would have been Stoke, not City, who had to steel themselves for the play-offs. That’s not to say we bottled it then, or that a similar fate awaits, but it’s a cautionary tale, lest we get too carried away with our current position.

It really is a fantastic position though, and one that every club in the division not called Cardiff would jump at. It’s so good, in fact, that a win tomorrow would guarantee a play-off place – something we’d all have taken in August. But with a great prize in our grasp, that would actually be a disappointment. Now’s not a time for consolidating, but for one final push to get over the finishing line.

To Ipswich then. This was the venue for our final-day disappointment in 2008, when a defeat at Portman Road ensured there’d be no automatic promotion that season. That unhappy afternoon aside, Portman Road hasn’t been a bad venue for the Tigers. Since regular-ish meetings resumed in 2005/6, that’s the only time we’ve lost in Suffolk, though matches have been notably low-scoring – just six goals in the five fixtures there.

Then again, City have been quite low-scoring themselves lately. The Tigers’ free-flowing football earlier in the campaign began to stutter when the weather began to ruin pitches up and down the land, and they haven’t yet recaptured that early-season swagger. We’ve seen just three goals from the last three games, though they have at least yielded six points and another gritty 1-0 win tomorrow would hardly be unwelcome. The Tigers quest for three points will have to be undertaken without Alex Bruce, who’s unlikely to play again this season after limping off last week, though Jack Hobbs is expected to make an earlier-than-expected return to deputise. Matty Fryatt, scorer of the only goal in this fixture last season, may make the bench and therefore his first appearance since August.

It’s been another testing season for Ipswich, though the appointment of Mick McCarthy appears to have seen them to safety. Their present tally of 53 points could do with another couple adding, just to be sure, but they’re almost certainly safe in 15th place. Their undoing has been a lack of goals, with 40 from 41 games and a divisional high of 15 blanks so far. Everything points to a tight encounter then, particular as their loan striker David McGoldrick is no longer eligible for selection. Another loanee in their ranks is our own Aaron Mclean, who is not permitted to play.

The bookies have been long-term sceptics of the Tigers’ chances this season, but they’ve finally come around. City haven’t often been favourites away from home in 2012/13, despite having racked up 10 wins on the road. However we are favourites tomorrow, a best-priced 13/8 chance. Ipswich recording their ninth home win of the season is 2/1, while a rare draw for City is 12/5. We won’t put up the odds for promotion though. Despite everything, we know better than that. See you all in Suffolk…

PREVIEW: City v Middlesbrough

Tuesday night’s interesting game has made this weekend’s game interesting too. The visit of a Middlesbrough side in unusual freefall doesn’t necessarily lubricate the taste buds, but after City couldn’t make that big, big step against Watford the other night, we’ll get hard evidence now of how much it has affected them.

Steve Bruce has rarely got something wrong this season, but he must shoulder some of the culpability for the frustrating home defeat to the Hornets in midweek which put them within a point of our automatic promotion spot instead of leaving them seven big, big points adrift. The midfield lacked bite and a protective film and with the two creative players having something of an off night, it wasn’t a great occasion. Fine opponents, of course, but they only had to do enough to expose City’s shortcomings.

One suspects Bruce will have a rethink for the visit of Tony Mowbray’s men. Jack Hobbs is out with the ankle injury that forced him off ten minutes before the end of Tuesday’s game, mercifully removing Alex Bruce from contention for the midfield baseman role which he seems only able to pull off when not playing against vibrant midfielders.

Corry Evans and Stephen Quinn are in contention to return as a result, but both may well get the nod if Bruce decided that George Boyd belongs up front rather than in an attacking midfield role (which became a free role on Tuesday, such was his lack of ball). And we may finally see the return of Matt Fryatt as a sub after his eight-month lay-off with Achilles trouble. That alone would be a most welcome sight.

Boro should welcome back former City triallist Stuart Parnaby after hamstring trouble, but are without Julio Arca and striker Emmanuel Ledesma. Usually contenders at this stage of the season, they have not won in five and have slid to ninth in the table, a whole six points off the play-off place. This fixture has been a late-season staple over each of the last three campaigns, and Fryatt got the late winner when City beat them 2-1 at the Circle last season. Boro fans will recall fondly a most eccentric 4-2 win here a year before, when City took an early lead but had lost the game by half time. The bookies have City at 8/11 to win, with Boro at 4/1 and the draw – something City rarely end up with – at 12/5.

So, back to the KC we go, trying to draw a veil over the missed opportunity in midweek and restart the process once more. We are, after all, still second in the table. It’s just the margin that has altered, not the hope, nor the expectation, nor the ability of the players and manager. City never do these things in a straightforward manner.