A fourth successive league defeat leaves Town nervously contemplating a relegation battle should fortunes not change in the near future, but this latest reverse carried significant signs of hope that the club can get back to the mundane mid table position which looked pretty inevitable before Christmas.
Uninspiring as it is to yearn for mediocrity, a season with no drama remains enticing after the deep trauma of recent years, but the disruptions to a previously stable team capable of picking up enough points to keep comfortably out of danger have proven too fundamental to overcome.
Nerves and mood were not helped at all by a pathetic, featureless defeat to Millwall, and the absence of style, imagination and energy cast a pall of gloom which threatened to derail the Corberán project before it has had chance to build any sort of platform for the future.
Just 6 days later, and with just one change to last week’s mooching shambles (which probably helped), Town came away from Ashton Gate with no reward but, hopefully, a renewed sense of purpose.
Before the half hour, the visitors appeared doomed to their now traditional sound thrashing beside the Severn Estuary as the Robins struck twice inside 5 minutes, exposing Town’s static and square back line with two good pieces of skill.
First, an Alfie Mawson through ball was cleverly dummied by Mariappa which set Diédhiou free to round Schofield and slot home. Town’s naivety contributed to the concession but should not detract from City’s invention.
A poor clearance by Sarr, over his head and with no control, allowed the hosts to strike a second time just a few minutes later as Palmer clipped a nice through ball inside Sarr for Diédhiou to grab his brace.
Surgically dissected twice in the space of just a few minutes, Town’s reasonable start to the game which had seen them come closest to opening the scoring when an excellent O’Brien surge ended with a shot against the post, lay in ruins and an implosion seemed far more likely than what was to follow.
Much will be made of Town’s defensive frailty in those two moments, but this would be to unfairly overlook the invention of Bristol’s forward play and, indeed, before the double concession they should have made much more of an excellent ball by Palmer out to the right, but Marriappa fluffed the opportunity to create an easy chance for either of the forwards awaiting a simple ball in.
Rocked back on their heels and with confidence taking another battering, Town took a while to regain some equilibrium but the final hour belonged almost exclusively to the Terriers, only for them to be thwarted by a combination of ill fortune, some good goalkeeping and the familiar lack of clinical finishing.
Helped by Bristol’s decision to contain the visitors by settling back and hoping to profit from any over commitment, the home side rather lulled themselves into passivity and can count themselves fortunate, to say the least, that their strategy eventually paid off.
Perhaps informed by their rather short break since beating Millwall with some ease in the cup, the self extinguishing of any meaningful threat, after looking capable of punishing Town further, was a high stakes gamble, but the 3 points they gained were not deserved.
Just before the break, a Town corner was met by Vallejo, who thumped the ball into the ground looping it towards goal only for Hunt to head it on to the bar and clear. It wasn’t to be the last encounter the Spaniard had with the woodwork, but along with some decent movement and interplay, which rather evaporated as they got nearer the goal, the visitors finished the half strongly while City’s ambition visibly waned.
Town’s second half display was the most promising for a long while. Their opponents’ decision to retreat makes it difficult to assess how much of this improvement was overwhelming superiority rather than taking advantage of circumstances, but it should still provide a platform for the near future and must be built upon.
For the first time in at least a month, Town’s left flank developed some potency. Toffolo was allowed to get further forward than of late, O’Brien finally found some form and Aarons produced easily his best display of his short time at the club.
The right wing was less effective, but Pipa was also more prominent behind a rather more mixed Mbenza performance. Marriappa, however, proved a more difficult opponent for them than the opposite side of the Robins’ defence.
The chances flowed.
A perfect cross by Toffolo should have been converted by Campbell; perhaps he was surprised at the quality of the ball in after such a long time feeding on scraps, but his attempt lacked the necessary calm of a Championship striker.
Mbenza slipped as he attempted one of his free kicks from a distance which looked optimistic, though Bentley in the Bristol goal was sufficiently worried by the attempt.
On the hour, more good play down the left saw the lively Aarons played in by O’Brien and after a mazy run, just on the right side of control, his ball in to the danger area was back heeled intelligently by Mbenza to present Bacuna with a chance he couldn’t, and didn’t, miss.
Vallejo then hit a superb effort from around the same distance as the Mbenza free kick, which caused the Robins’ custodian even more concern. Unfortunately, the quality of the strike wasn’t rewarded and crashed down off the bar and Bacuna, whose second half display was notably improved, was unable to profit from the aftermath.
Bacuna then hit another, equally excellent, long range shot which Bentley did well to turn over the bar, though the effort was very close to him.
The overriding feeling that the home goal was charmed was confirmed as another Bacuna effort hit Campbell and struck the post before diverting to safety.
With a total of 26 shots, 6 on target, Town could not be accused of lacking creativity and the wafer thin margins worked against them on a night where an hour of total dominance simply wasn’t reflected in the final score. The hosts’ threats were, and this is charitable, sporadic and either easily dealt with by the excellent Keogh or self inflicted in the case of yet another back pass moment which drew an “oh, God!” commentary on iFollow, as Schofield hesitated before winning, after a fashion, a dead ball.
The disappointment of yet another defeat on the road is, to an extent, alleviated by the promise of the performance though the opposition’s tactical choices allowed the game to be played to Town’s strengths. It is unlikely that Stoke will fall into the same trap, but the confidence the team should take from a far more fluent and imposing display should not be underestimated.
Optimistically, it is encouraging that Corberán transformed pretty much the same group of players in less than a week and if and when injuries start to clear up and Holmes adds a new level of dynamism, hope may be resurrected.
However, the improvement must be continued at the weekend and the very different circumstances they face overcome.
Winning is now an urgent requirement.