Coventry City start the new year at a crossroads both on and off the pitch. Down one path is new ownership, new players and a half-decent chance to make the play-offs. Down the other is further delays with the takeover, insecurity over the club’s future at the CBS Arena, losing key players in January and the remote possibility of quickly slipping down the league table. Which direction the Sky Blues take is unlikely to be dictated by the result of this upcoming home game against Bristol City, but a win would be more than welcome to calm the anxiety around this football club.
Against a Bristol City side that are in something of a mire right now looks a decent opportunity to start the year off on the right note. However, memories only have to be cast back to August as a reminder of how dangerous this opponent can be. Furthermore, Mark Robins’ playing resources are stretched so thin at the moment that getting to the end of this game without any further injuries may be the chief outcome the manager will be hoping for here.
The selection dilemma presented to Mark Robins for this game is the tension between risking tired players who may be on the verge of picking up injures and the limited scope for change available to him. The team selected against Cardiff City was just about the strongest that the manager could name, with it being hard to identify what else the manager can do right now.
As ever after Kasey Palmer has started and played 90 minutes of a game, the question is whether he is capable of doing so again for the next one. The alternative to Palmer would be to start Martyn Waghorn in order to make it a two in attack – although, Palmer was so advanced against Cardiff City that it may make little difference to the pattern of the team’s build-up play – which would put the onus on Gustavo Hamer and Ben Sheaf to carry the team creatively, before bringing Palmer on later for an energetic salvo. However, Mark Robins has a tendency to stick with players regardless of perceived fitness levels, rather than make changes.
If that stays true for this game, then any personnel alterations may not occur. The exception to that may be Fankaty Dabo at right wing-back, who was notably not close to full match fitness against Cardiff City. That Mark Robins favoured Todd Kane from the bench, over Jack Burroughs, who has just had a run in the team, may suggest that the former is in line for a rare start here, potentially with a view to making a decision over whether or not to look to offload him in January.
Last Time We Met
A Bristol City side that had been in free-scoring form to start the season looked an intimidating away trip for a Coventry City team that had been leaking goals left, right and centre, and were rooted to the bottom of the Championship table. The game followed the expected pattern, with the Robins largely dominating play and the Sky Blues attempting to hold firm. There were a few scares, but with Bristol City seemingly only interested in scoring from crosses, Coventry eventually figured out their threat and became the first team this campaign to keep a clean sheet against them.
The Manager – Nigel Pearson
The former Leicester City boss has benefitted from a lot of goodwill and patience at Ashton Gate since taking over nearly two years ago, but that is starting to run thin. Nigel Pearson has made a lot about rectifying a perceived frail mentality at Bristol City, after inheriting a bloated, overpaid and underperforming squad. However, he has now had time to work with a squad largely of his own making and he continues to throw his players under the bus for shortcomings that are starting to look like his own.
The number one issue that Nigel Pearson has at Bristol City is in defence, where his team have had a habit of leaking silly goals. The lack of a defensive leader in this side has even led Pearson into playing Andy King – once, a very attack-minded goalscoring midfielder – in the heart of the back-line. That defensive fragility had been counter-acted by an excellent attacking unit, however, the goals have dried up over the past month or so as the focus has been placed firmly on rectifying the defensive leakiness.
Who To Look Out For?
That Bristol City can afford to have attacking players of the quality of Nakhi Wells and Mark Sykes on the bench currently is a luxury that Mark Robins would love to have right now. It speaks to the embarrassment of riches that the Robins have in forward areas, where the dynamic Andi Weimann and the skilful, physical and pacey Antoine Semenyo are among the best attacking players in the Championship. That threat has been supplemented this season thanks to the emergence of academy player, Tommy Conway, as a pacey goal poacher up front.
In midfield, Nigel Pearson has left out the talented French youngster, Han-Noah Massengo, out of recent matchday squads as speculation over a January transfer move mounts. Nonetheless, Alex Scott is an even more exciting midfield prospect who is fully capable of running games at this level. With Matty James currently fit as a guiding presence in the middle of the park, it makes for an exciting battle for supremacy in that area of the pitch in this game, with the tigerish, but injury-prone, Joe Williams another good option for Bristol City to call upon.
At the back, Bristol City may have a tendency to lose concentration but in Rob Atkinson, Zak Vyner and, especially, Kal Naismith, they have some very confident ball-players who could help tip the battle for control of the ball in the Robins’ favour by stepping up to the middle of the pitch in possession. In goal, Daniel Bentley is an excellent shot-stopper who can bail his defence out when some of those errors occur.
Where The Game Will Be Won Or Lost
As mentioned in the previous section, both teams are strongest in central midfield, which will make it the key battle area in this game. With Bristol City possessing a trio of the intelligent Matty James to latch onto loose balls and distribute it to the attack-minded Andi Weimann and Alex Scott alongside him, there is a danger that Gustavo Hamer and Ben Sheaf could end up out-numbered if Jamie Allen doesn’t end up dropping back to make it a three when out of possession.
If Bristol City’s midfield can get on top in this game, that could see them get into awkward areas in behind Coventry City’s midfield, which could draw the attention of defenders away from Antoine Semenyo, who plays a similar luxury bulldozer role in attack for the Robins as Viktor Gyokeres does for the Sky Blues. Semenyo is the type of attacker who requires the attention of multiple defenders in order to contain, if the midfield cannot protect the defence, he could win the game for Bristol City by driving at Coventry City’s back-line and getting clear on goal.
At the other end, Coventry City will also be hoping to isolate their key attacking player, Viktor Gyokeres, against an opposing defence that is short on confidence. As seen in the Cardiff City game, Gyokeres is increasingly becoming a marked man in this division and opponents will make every attempt to place multiple defenders between him and goal. That is where Kasey Palmer could have a vital role to play in this game, either in drawing defenders away from Viktor Gyokeres or taking advantage of the space the opposition leave behind in attempting to deal with the striker who is clearly the Sky Blues’ biggest goal threat.