|Northampton Town 0|
|Bradford City 0|
By Adam Raj
From a ground that City historically get nothing from, in the Memorial Ground last weekend, to a venue in Sixfields, that City have enjoyed maximum points from on their last four visits, the contrasts couldn’t have been much different. The constant however, was in the level of opposition.
Much like Bristol Rovers, today’s hosts Northampton Town still had lots to play for. And that’s been the regular theme since Mark Hughes took over at Valley Parade, with seven of the eight opponents still being well within the promotion picture.
It’s proven to be the best possible run of games for a manager who is assessing the capabilities and deficiencies of a squad that he seeks to rebuild in the summer.
Hughes’ arrival has undoubtedly brought a much better style of football, but with that comes new challenges. City struggled badly with the high and aggressive press deployed by Bristol Rovers last weekend and today’s hosts had certainly done their homework.
A similar start from the Cobblers saw the hosts rock up four corners within the first eight minutes of the contest as well as a number of free kicks in promising areas. City were once again being swarmed upon and not dealing with it particularly well. Alex Bass shanked a few passes out of touch and long, forward balls weren’t sticking (a familiar problem). Fortunately for the Bantams, Northampton didn’t possess the level of quality that Rovers have at their disposal, which meant City errors went unpunished.
In contrast to last week, City were fairly aggressive themselves with good pressure applied to Town’s backline forcing them into hopeful punts forwards up to striker Louis Appere who got no change out of Paudie O’Connor. It made for quite a scrappy game, with neither side being able to enjoy a period of possession.
And for all Town’s early pressure, they created very little in the first half. Appere and Josh Eppiah fired harmlessly wide from some promising positions but that was as close as they came to troubling Bass in the City goal.
When City did get the ball down and show some composure, they played through their visitors and some fantastic footwork from Dion Pereira saw him combine with Jamie Walker to set up Andy Cook for a great chance eight yards from goal. But the City number nine was too slow to the ball and Cobblers skipper Joe Mills made a fantastic last ditch challenge to sweep the ball from Cook’s feet and avert the danger.
The second half started much like the first. City were generally sloppy in possession and the hosts full of energy and aggression. The first big chance of the game predictably came from some sloppy City play. Gareth Evans played a blind cross-field pass, midway inside his own half, which lacked the power and precision to find Liam Ridehalgh on the left wing. Sam Hoskins intercepted and played Appere through but it was the Northampton striker’s turn to dally in a good position, which allowed Yann Songo’o to recover and make a slight block on the shot that was straight down the throat of Bass.
Since Evans’ initial revival under Hughes, the midfielder has struggled in the last few games. He has been sloppy in possession and looked a yard off the pace in general. When he was substituted and replaced in midfield first by Alex Gilliead and then Callum Cooke, City did improve their energy and composure in the centre of the park.
That chance for Appere seemed to spark the home side into life and City were fortunate to still be level after 50 minutes. As the ball bobbled around the City box and the visitors struggled to clear, Bass made a fantastic point blank block to deny Appere again and Hoskins somehow fired against the crossbar from six yards out.
The on loan Pompey keeper may have had a poor day with the ball at his feet but his reactions to thwart Northampton on that occasion and similarly later on, ensured City came away with a point, and his fourth clean sheet in six games.
It could have been more if not for a superb save from home keeper Liam Roberts. City broke forward with Charles Vernam down the left flank. The winger cut inside to set up Cooke who struck a powerful shot towards the top corner but the Town number one somehow got fingertips to the strike and pushed it onto the crossbar.
From the resulting corner, Walker’s near post flick found Pereira two yards from goal, but the on loan Luton winger couldn’t react in time and the ball seemed to just unexpectedly strike him in the stomach.
City’s strong finish to the game coincided with Vernam and Cooke’s introduction but also Lee Angol’s second return from long-term injury this season. The striker made his comeback from his latest hamstring issue in the behind closed doors fixture at Huddersfield Town in midweek and was good for half an hour of league action today.
Angol gives City a different and much missed dynamic in comparison to Cook. Angol is the more mobile and technically gifted of the two which is crucial in a counter attacking setup as City found themselves in this afternoon. In contrast, Cook struggled to get into the game again. His hold up play, when the ball does come into his body is not good enough, but none of his teammates are prepared to gamble for when he does win flick-ons. And in the striker’s defence, very little is being created for him either.
It’s just one of a number of debates facing Hughes this summer, is Cook’s all round game good enough to justify his selection? Or, when you see the dynamic Angol brings to the side with his qualities, is a striker in that mould the better option?
Ultimately Hughes will use this afternoon’s encounter as another evaluating exercise. He will have seen his side compete and go toe to toe with another supposedly ‘top’ side in the division and deservedly take something from the game.
What he will have learnt, I am sure, is that there is very little between most sides in the division this year, and if the club can inject some real quality this summer, they will have something to fight for this time next year.
But that is a big if.
Categories: Match Reviews