I said before the game that I’d take a draw from yesterday’s trip to Millwall and when you look at our very eventful 3-3 draw from from the point of view of the Londoner’s league position and their recent results, I stick with that opinion. I have to admit though that, with the number of games left to play ebbing away fast, there is a bigger picture to be looked at now and the brutal reality is that, with Norwich taking their run to just two defeats in twenty four and the jacks also winning, there has to be longer odds on us finishing in the top two now than there were twenty four hours ago.
It also needs to be said that, when you look beyond the result and to what actually happened in the game, then there isn’t too much to restore any faith lost in our automatic promotion bid over the previous three games. The positives for me were a return to goalscoring form for Chris Burke after a goal drought lasting almost seven months and signs that Craig Bellamy has come out of his recent lethargic spell and could still be the major factor in the climax of our season that he was brought here to be. As well as that, there seems to be general agreement that the team showed a better attitude than they did last week when you got the distinct impression that some of them weren’t up for the fight.
Beyond that though, you didn’t need to look too far to see the sort of fallibilities that go a long way towards explaining why so many supporters have become glass half empty merchants over the past fortnight. For a start, if, as I believe, scoring twice against Barnsley should have been enough to guarantee the three points, then the same applies with bells on when you are talking about scoring three times at the ground of a side which had conceded only fifteen goals in eighteen home matches before yesterday – and six of those came in one game!
City didn’t half give away some shoddy goals yesterday – Gabor Gyepes’ panicky and unnecessary shove on Kevin Lisbie gifted Millwall a penalty, we then conceded from a corner (again – that’s four since the Stoke replay now), while it’s hard to know where to start for the third goal! I suppose listing all of the mistakes City made in conceding that goal in chronological order is as good a way as any to go about it, so, first, Bouazza was able to look up and pick a pass from around the halfway line with no City player within about five yards of him (it’s one thing for that to happen late on if you are chasing the game, but not when you are protecting a one goal lead), second, Dekel Keinan was left trailing well behind Steve Morrison as he ran on to the pass, third, Kevin McNaughton could, possibly, have done a better job of coming around on the cover and fourth, Steve Bywater made the Millwall striker’s mind up for him by rushing off his line.
Mention of Bywater takes me on to the flak he has got from supporters who, seemingly, were expecting us to sign someone like Pepe Reina or Edwin Van der Sar on loan when Tom Heaton got injured. Now, maybe Bywater could have done better for Morrison’s goal, but there were more serious errors made by some of those in front of him as well and, although he’s let in two goals a game on average so far, I’m still waiting for one that I can say he was definitely to blame for. In saying that, we’ve let in eight goals in four matches after conceding three in the previous six – Aaron Ramsey leaving has a bit to do with this, but, more than that, a defence having to get acquainted with a new keeper over a short period where the games come thick and fast doesn’t help. Also, although I’ll defend Bywater more than most, it is hard to come up with too many good saves he has made in those four games (I can remember one at Palace, but I’m struggling after that) – let’s just hope Heaton is fit enough to face Derby early next month.
What that third goal also did is further enforce a stat that you would just never associate with a top two side. In their past two matches City have scored four goals that took them into the lead in either game and it took our opponents a grand total of thirty one minutes to come up with the four equalisers to those goals. Now that might not look too bad at first glance, but what it means is that it took the other team an average of less than eight minutes to reply each time we scored – think about that, it’s like being level at 4-4 just over half an hour into a match after taking the lead four times!
Similarly, we have conceded a goal in the last ten minutes of each of our last four matches and, leaving aside Bullard’s deflected free kick in the Ipswich match which didn’t effect the result, they have cost us a total of five points - it’s even more galling to note that two of those goals have come in the eighty seventh and eighty ninth minutes.
In a way though the worst aspect of what happened yesterday is that all three substitutions we made were injury enforced. Jay Bothroyd lasted less than half an hour before departing for Jon Parkin with what is reported as a hamstring injury. Jay has tweeted that he hopes to be available for the Derby match in a fortnight, but, if it is a strain, then I reckon he might be being a bit optimistic there – I know he’s not been anywhere near his best lately, but I still feel a City team with Bothroyd in it is a stronger one than one without him. Mark Hudson was the next to go with what Dave Jones described as a medial ligament injury – I don’t like the sound of that because, as I understand it, that can mean at least three weeks out. Finally Paul Quinn went off with what I think was the same problem that has seen him get subbed on a few occasions since he got back into the team. Hopefully, the International break over the next fortnight will mean that at least some of the injured players (I make it six plus Naylor and Koumas who Dave Jones says have been unavailable for some recent matches) will be available against Derby, but the squad is being stretched at the worst possible time and, even if we did make a couple of loan signings before Thursday’s deadline, it wouldn’t plug all of the gaps we now have.
Just to say before finishing that, with two efforts against the post and the bizarre decision to overturn a penalty award for City on the advice of the fourth official, they certainly didn’t enjoy the rub of the green yesterday – although I believe the officials got it right in the end, I’m not sure having someone stood fifty yards away overturning decisions taken by those much closer to the action is something that should be encouraged. Just under a couple of weeks ago City went to south London and cursed their luck as they were denied by a combination of the woodwork and some inspired goalkeeping and it was more of the same yesterday except this time they weren’t given the opportunity to hit the woodwork from the penalty spot like Peter Whittingham did at Selhurst Park!
So, taken in isolation, a draw at Millwall is a decent result and the performance did offer some hope for the run in, but, it is what happened against Ipswich, Palace and Barnsley (each of these side’s subsequent results have proved how much City under achieved against them) that means that it hasn’t done anything to erase the generally downbeat view of things that prevails currently. We’re still in with a chance of that top two finish and the table could look completely different in three weeks time, but I find it very hard to avoid the feeling that we have thrown away a great opportunity in the past fortnight – some matches turn out to be season defining and, at the moment, Ipswich’s smash and grab win here looks like being a case in point.