It’s been a long and difficult way back and, given the context of what’s happened in the world over the last three months, many fans have felt apathetic at the prospect of football’s return.
But interest has been slowly building since players returned to training, a date for resumption was fixed and managers have emerged from lockdown talking football again in a competitive sense, to the point where the buzz is now back.
Bristol City remain in an outstanding position to achieve one of their goals when they set out on this season on August 4, 2019. Placed seven, just one point outside the play-off positions and with nine games to make up the difference.
First up are Blackburn, just points below them in the table and who beat the Robins 2-0 back at Ashton Gate in December. It will be a formidable opening test for Lee Johnson’s side but also for the hosts.
Here are some major talking points ahead of the clash at Ewood Park …
Will Benik start?
If a fans committee was put in charge of picking today’s team the answer to the above question would be a comprehensive “yes”, as the opportunity to see Benik Afobe back in competitive action and all the romance associated with his comeback is just too seductive an option.
However, while this aspect of him may invite criticism, Lee Johnson hasn’t carved out seven years in management without using his head over his heart and being cold and clinical in his decision making.
Looking at the facts, Afobe hasn’t played – beyond a friendly at Southampton and two in-house practice matches – since early September and is returning from a second major ACL injury.
The Robins have two excellent strikers in Nahki Wells, who is carrying a slight knock, and Famara Diedhiou so there is no pressing need to start Afobe. Plus the fact he’ll likely be a vital player over next five weeks.
From a duty of care aspect, Johnson also has to be mindful of initiating any kind of set-back in his recovery by bringing him back too soon into action; that doesn’t help Afobe, Bristol City or even Stoke City for that matter, as a minor concern.
But the argument for starting him is strong in terms of the extra penetration he offers against a solid and efficient Blackburn side who maybe lack a bit of pace at the back.
That being said, there is a middle ground to this in the form of the slight rule changes that have been installed for these remaining 9-12 fixtures, most notably the ability to make five substitutions.
Johnson, we know, is an aggressive and willing user of substitutes to hopefully change a game and if, as expected, this contest is tight leading up to the 60-minute mark, the board going up and bearing the number 40 to signify Afobe’s entrance (swiftly followed by 45 for Kasey Palmer) looks a near inevitability.
There’s also a secondary debate within this, namely if Diedhiou, Wells and Afobe can be combined as a trio or is it a given that at least one will have be off the field for the other two to prosper?
Blackburn left for dead or Mowbray’s mind games?
One positional deficiency on the field won’t decide an entire contest over 90 minutes but if Blackburn are unable – as anticipated – to field either of their first-choice left-backs then that is a considerable bonus for Bristol City.
Neither Amari’i Bell or Derrick Williams have featured in match action during the build-up to this game and Mowbray has rated both as “touch and go”.
Left-back, so what? Would be the normal response to such a largely trivial aspect of team news but if both miss out then it’s one of Stewart Downing, young midfielder Joe Rankin-Costello or veteran Charlie Mulgrew who starts.
If it’s Downing it should affect their creativity in the final third, with so much flowing through the former England winger; if it’s Rankin-Costello, his inexperience is an obvious weakness, never mind the fact he’s a right-footed midfield by trade; and if it’s Mulgrew, the Scot hasn’t played in the Championship since early December, and that was while on loan at Wigan.
When you factor in City’s strengths down their right flank, whether it be Niclas Eliasson, Callum O’Dowda, Jamie Paterson or Jack Hunt – and whoever lines up at left-back are set for a challenging afternoon.
However, for all that, maybe tony Mowbray is being a little economical with the truth and perhaps Bell or Williams are good to go and it’s all bluster to try and draw Johnson into picking a team focusing on wingers, knowing how strong Blackburn are through the middle.
By 2pm, we should have some of the answers.
How much will this game define the next five weeks?
There are a few doom-mongers lurking, of course, but the overwhelming feeling among City fans is positivity and optimism. For a number of reasons: Afobe, squad strength, fixtures and the fact the play-offs are within touching distance.
However, Blackburn are a formidable opponent and in normal circumstances this match would be earmarked on the fixture list as a difficult obstacle to encounter.
Rovers also have designs on the play-offs and will view this match as pivotal in establishing whether they are genuine top six contenders or being content with a solid mid-table Championship team.
Although defeat would be hard to take, it’s not going to define the next five weeks and it shouldn’t drastically affect their play-off ambitions; there are too many games with too many opportunities to gain points.
At the same time, given the packed nature of the nine fixtures, form and positive momentum will be vitally important as, before we know it, we’ll be in early July and looking ahead to the final straight.
The Robins don’t want to concede too much ground to their rivals but do have more winnable fixtures in the middle to end part of their schedule – Hull City, Middlesbrough and Stoke City.
Of course, the target of three points of paramount but what maybe just as important is not losing and, at the very least, putting in a cohesive performance that gives reason for optimism that this team can peak at the right time.
The maintenance and fostering of belief will be vitally important to ensuring City get over the line.
From the players’ perspective, for all the work and preparation they put in on the training ground – mentally and physically – confidence can only be truly enhanced in match situations.
Will there be more touchline tension?
The technical area for Johnson is an interesting place. For the most part, the City head coach is actually quite static in how he views the game, almost studious in watching the ebb and flow and rhythm across the 90 minutes.
There are often shouted instructions, directions and instructions given during any breaks in play but although his disciplinary record would suggest otherwise, he’s not the Tasmanian Devil-like presence in that small box as many would expect.
Johnson’s big problem, of course, is his choice of language with referees and the fourth official whose existence outside of introducing substitutes, sometimes feels to be based around having their ear chewed off by opposing coaches.
However, there have been a number of regulations either created or reinforced for the next 9-12 games. And concerning the touchline, the EFL state, “Those in the technical area must behave in a responsible manner and maintain social distancing measures with the fourth official.”
Johnson may need to temper his passion somewhat to fall in line, or merely shout from distance which could leave him even more hoarse at the end of the game.
In the previous fixture in December, there were heated scenes when Johnson was incensed by a Blackburn physio entered the field of play, he thought without the officials’ consent, and balls were thrown in either direction in anger.
Johnson branded the behaviour of the Blackburn bench as “outrageous”, but Mowbray thought it was something of nothing. Either way, there could well be some lingering needle.
That being said, the extra restrictions in place and maybe the lack of tension and atmosphere within stadiums could lead to a decrease in the frequency of these sort of incidents.
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Will we see a fully fit Kalas and Nagy?
Focus on City’s squad entering this restart has largely, and understandably, focused on Johnson’s myriad options in attack, with Diedhiou joined by January signing Nahki Wells and the fit-again Afobe.
It’s a case of from famine to feast in terms of striking resources for Johnson, something that 12 months ago was cited as being a huge deficiency at the club and part of the reason they fell short in the 2018/19 season.
But while that trio could be pivotal in bridging the gap on Preston and the rest of the top six, the spine of the Robins team could be further reinforced by two players who have been largely present this season in body but maybe not quite in soul.
Tomas Kalas is an elite-tier centre-back at Championship-level, even before he arrived at Ashton Gate, and, lest we forget, is £8m worth of defender that the club saw fit to break their transfer record for.
City have had their moments this season defensively, but overall the consistency of keeping the opposition at bay hasn’t been there. They rank 16th in the Championship for goals conceded (53) – the lowest placed of all the teams in the top half – and 23rd for shots conceded per game (15.2).
That’s not all on Kalas’ shoulders but his hamstring and knee problems have hampered his performances. He’s not moved as freely and the overall mental frustration of not being quite right may well have affected his anticipation and reading of the game.
A three-month rest is something he wouldn’t have been afforded even in pre-season but it gives the Czech the perfect platform to return to his best and anchor the City defence.
In front of him could also be a fully reinvigorated Adam Nagy who, in his first two performances, genuinely looked like he could be one of the signings of the summer in the way he moulded and controlled City’s midfield play.
However, his own injury issues and subsequent struggles at settling in Bristol – and one may one have been a product of the other – have curtailed his progress and he’s been unable to state his authority on games since.
Nagy functioning at optimum level would bring some much to City’s midfield in terms of their tempo and ball retention; making them able to pass their way around teams, as well as linking defence and attack.
Too often City can be disjointed in their approach and relying on individual magic, set pieces or just the will of peppering the box with deep passes. But Nagy is a crafty and intelligent passer who can make space and create overloads, freeing space for others.
With Korey Smith and Han-Noah Massengo appearing the likely pairing at Ewood Park, we may not see him initially but he could have a huge role to play in making City less predictable in possession.