Robin Sainty: 'The top spots will be exchanged several times before we get to May'
I'm not sure that too many of us would have been too surprised by Wednesday night's performance at Preston.
Having played their three main rivals for the automatic spots in the last five games as well as a particularly intense derby, there were some tired City legs and minds at Deepdale.
They certainly didn’t help themselves by conceding a soft penalty and missing one of their own, but the second-half performance wasn’t bad and could have produced more on another night.
It would be wrong to bemoan their luck because they have had the rub of the green more often than not this season and a game like this where very little went right was always on the cards.
The worry for Daniel Farke will be the lack of dynamism in midfield in the absence of a fulcrum like Mo Leitner or Mario Vrancic to dictate the tempo. I was a little surprised that Kenny McLean wasn’t given a start, but I’m not going to second guess a manager who has got most things right this season.
It’s ironic that in a game in which Ipswich’s aggression on the field matched that of their bellicose manager off it, Vrancic should pick up an injury through a fall rather than a heavy challenge, but it could yet be a pivotal moment with Farke still nursing Leitner back to full fitness.
Wednesday night demonstrated how one of City’s strengths is also a potential weakness. Their successful run has meant that the manager has had to make minimal changes so the side has been settled, but at Preston some players looked rather heavy-legged. However, while it’s easy to talk about rotation, the lack of cup games and the gulf between Under-23 and Championship football means that any players coming in find it hard to adjust to the pace.
When players have had to be replaced it has taken time for the replacements to get up to speed, Ben Godfrey and Tom Trybull being prime examples, and while City have generally been able to cope with this, Wednesday’s game proved a bridge too far, with the returning Alex Tettey looking laboured.
With a City defeat being something of a rarity it is felt all the more keenly by fans, but it’s worth emphasising that this was the first away defeat since August, and their performances have earned the players the right to have an off-night.
There were strong parallels with the game at Brentford on New Year’s Day when City were largely outplayed by a side which appeared to have more of a spring in its step than the Canaries, but the big difference is that on that occasion the FA Cup gave Farke a chance to rest key players before the next league game at West Brom 10 days later.
This time around City quickly have to face a Bolton team fighting for their lives and coming off an impressive win at Birmingham, and it’s essential that Farke’s men bounce back strongly.
However, it’s also a matter of perspective. Whilst City have lost the top spot they are still two points clear of third place and whilst they may be affected by the growing pressure as the finishing line appears on the horizon, so will their nearest challengers.
This is the Championship, one of the most gruelling leagues in the world, and there will be more peaks and troughs before the season ends, and just as I didn’t expect City to make a decisive breakaway at this stage I don’t expect Leeds or Sheffield United too either.
I suspect that the top spots will be exchanged several times before we get to May and we must accept that it will not be a smooth journey to promotion. However, this squad of players has consistently exceeded expectations and I have no doubt whatsoever that they will continue to do so.