Three goals to the good from the first leg, City should stroll this one, shouldn’t they? Harry Drew shakes his head . . .
‘Typical City’. Surely an overused quip, but with regards to Tuesday evening’s shenanigans it could not be more apt. Despite going into the second leg of the play-off semi-final with a three goal advantage, City almost suffered a humiliating reversal of fortunes at the hands of a resurgent Derby County. The fact that the predominant feeling inside the KC was one of relief, not elation, at full-time was indicative of the kind of night fans had to endure.
The Tigers should have been prepared for Derby to fly out of the traps, given that they effectively had nothing to lose. Yet City initially seemed bewildered by the Rams’ fluid, attacking football. As impressive as Derby were, Steve Bruce’s side were hopelessly overwhelmed by their opposition in the first 45 minutes – at times a semi-final exit looked an inevitability. But to their credit, City defended admirably in the second half to secure a date with Sheffield Wednesday at Wembley next Saturday.
Bruce stuck with the side that prevailed 3-0 at the iPro Stadium on Saturday. The visitors made two changes, with Jeff Hendrick coming in for Bradley Johnson and Andreas Weimann replacing ex-Tiger Tom Ince. Unsurprisingly, Derby started on the front foot as Johnny Russell fired a long-range shot over the bar on six minutes. Moments later, the dreaded early goal came. Christie made a surging run down the right and crossed for Martin, who smartly headed the ball back across goal for Russell, and after his first attempt was blocked on the line by Davies, the Scotsman tapped in from close range.
An already vocal away support was buoyed by the early goal and Derby continued attacking in search of a second. Russell curled a free-kick wide following a clumsy foul by Livermore on 17 minutes, while Jeff Hendrick fired an ambitious volley over the crossbar soon after.
On the half hour mark Livermore once again conceded a free-kick in a dangerous position, this time picking up a yellow card for his troubles. Hendrick’s effort was poor but the ball came back to Craig Bryson who shot narrowly wide, much to the relief of the stranded Jakupovic. Moments later City’s best chance of the half fell to Jake Livermore, who saw his 25-yard shot deflected just off target.
With ten minutes to go until the end of the first half, Derby doubled their advantage. Martin Olsson was allowed space on the left and whipped in a dangerous low cross, which after being deflected by Curtis Davies, was turned into the net by an unfortunate Andy Robertson. The home crowd was left stunned; oh, typical City! Before half-time Moses Odubajo took a punt at goal from outside the area, only to see the ball fly over the bar following a big deflection.
The half-time break was the perfect opportunity for City’s players to clear their heads and reorganise for the second period. However, play began much the way it had ended in the first half, with Derby forcing City to defend for their lives. On 48 minutes the Rams should have levelled the tie but Jeff Hendrick somehow failed to convert Olsson’s cross from point-blank range.
David Meyler came on for Huddlestone in an attempt to break-up Derby’s midfield trio, who had thus far found it far too easy. This seemed to have an effect as the visitors thereafter struggled to breach City’s back four. Dawson made a superb challenge on substitute Tom Ince, who briefly looked to have got in on goal, on 70 minutes. From the resultant corner the ball found its way to Chris Martin, who tried to curl the ball into Jakupovic’s far corner, but City’s goalkeeper was equal to it.
Although Derby enjoyed the vast majority of possession in the last 20 minutes, they created little in the way of chances. A mixture of tactical changes and tiredness in the away side meant that Jakupovic went untroubled. Still, City had to defend well, with just the one goal necessary to force extra-time. The full-time whistle was greeted with widespread celebrations, but City fans knew how close their team had been run.
A Yorkshire derby at Wembley stadium awaits next Saturday for a place in the Premier League. Whatever the off-the-field troubles, this prospect should be enough to excite everyone associated with the club.
Harry Drew @hdrew95