An important away win at Bristol City (marred only by conceding the most bizarre of goals) set us up for our clash against league leaders Birmingham City. Unfortunately, it’s a fixture that we go in to without our leading scorer and talisman, Federico Cenci. His goals have been invaluable and I don’t mind my players going for the ball, but he picks them up regularly and I could do with having his services to call on for easily our biggest game of the season. If we can win, we can challenge for the title; lose and the focus will have to be on ensuring automatic promotion.
Date: Saturday 8th April 2017
Opponent: Birmingham City (1st)
Venue: St. James Park
Odds: Exeter City=6/4, Draw=2/1, Birmingham City=13/8
Weather: Wet, 15C
Referee: Mr. Mike Jones
It’s a crucial game and there’s three milestones being made. Michel is making his 250th career league appearance. Michele Marconi, Cenci’s replacement up front, makes his 100th league appearance for the club. And the third milestone? It’s mine. My 300th game in charge of my beloved Exeter City. Could my 300th game in charge be the one that is a big step into getting promoted into the Premier League? The next 90 minutes will reveal all!
Seconds after kick off, Rybus shoots wide across the face of goal from 10 yards. Whilst it could have been much worse, it’s hardly the kind of start that I wanted. The game settles down, but Birmingham are the better side. Spector shoots over from 30 yards in the 14th minute and Rybus can only shoot wide from 8 yards in the 22nd minute. Birmingham are doing a good job of preventing us building up any kind of momentum and creating some chances of their own.
Our first chance of note comes in the 29th minute. Bradley Johnson shoots from 16 yards, forcing Foster into a good save. Birmingham are able to react quickly, get to the rebound and clear to safety. Two minutes later, Altman shoots from 12 yards and we require the bar to come to our rescue before completing the clearance.
Our woodwork being struck seems to be the spur we have been waiting for and we finally seem to wake up. Johnson shoots from 25 yards in the 33rd minute and Foster catches comfortably. Whilst it may have been a comfortable save for him, at least we’re making him work and getting out way into the game. Three minutes later, Oliver Norwood takes an inswinging free kick from the left. He lands it on the head of Jagos Vukovic, who is 8 yards out. Vukovic powers a header at goal, forcing Foster to tip over the bar for a corner.
It’s as close as we get to a goal in the first half. But not as close as Birmingham get. Three minutes before the break, Bond parries a Blackstock shot from 18 yards and Beausejour rolls in the rebound from 12 yards to give the visitors a lead on the stroke of halftime. The dugout wall takes a beating as I can’t believe we’ve conceded at the end of an even half with few chances.
My half time words act as inspiration to the lads. Four minutes into the half, Johnson plays in Alain Besse. Besse takes a first time shot from 16 yards, forcing Foster into a save. Five minutes later, Johnson is involved in the action again. He’s 18 yards out and beats Foster. Unfortunately, the bar keeps Birmingham in the lead.
The bar has barely stopped rattling before Birmingham have their next chance. Altman is 12 yards out, but can’t keep his shot down. Although we need to to kick on and get at least a point, Birmingham do a great job in keeping the match dull. Gunter has name taken by Mr. Jones with 15 minutes to go for a foul on Besse.
With nine minutes to go, Norwood is able to fashion a chance for himself. He’s 25 yards out, so well within his range. If anything, it’s too close, shown by his shot going over the bar. Before Foster can take the goal kick, I replace Michel with Adriano Gazzoli.
The crossbar is rattled for the third time in the 85th minute. This time, it’s a shot from 20 yards. Spector is the player denied as Birmingham look to ensure they will be leaving with all three points. They do wrap the points up with a minute to go when Rybus fires home from 18 yards.
Result: Exeter City 0-2 Birmingham City
Man of the Match: Jonathan Bond
Ratings: GK-Bond (9.1), DR-Zapotoka (6.1), DCR-D’Avanzo (6.9), DCL-Vukovic (6.6), DL-Riccardi (6.8), MCR-Norwood (6.8), MCL-Johnson (6.6), AMR-Hayes (6.7), AMC-Michel (6.7, sub 81), AML-Besse (6.9), ST-Marconi (6.6). Sub-Gazzoli (on 81). Unused-McCarey, Rentea, Spearing, Langer.
League Position: 2nd
No Cenci, no goals. A fairly even game in which late strikes in both half were enough to give Birmingham three points and all but ensure they will get promoted and win the title. Marconi was involved very little and I’m sure that Cenci would have made a difference. It might not have been enough, but he would have kept the Birmingham defence busy. It was an excellent away performance by Birmingham, very much mirroring our performance at St. Andrews earlier in the season.
Before the match, a loss would result in me conceding the title to Birmingham and focusing on winning automatic promotion. With five games to go, we’re six points ahead of Blackburn Rovers. Wins will be important as even going unbeaten until the end of the season might not be enough.
Jonathan Bond’s Man of the Match performance was surprising. Not his performance, but the fact that he was named Man of the Match. It’s unusual for a keeper to be Man of the Match, especially after a 2-0 loss at home. It gets better for him as he gets named in Team of the Week.
I welcome three players back from loan; Martin Koci, Rob McNally and Aaron Walker from Fleetwood Town, Bristol Rovers and Cambridge United respectively. Hopefully the loan experience will have helped them push for first team places.