Barnet 2, City 0
Aston Villa’s spy report from Underhill will have carried one straight-forward message: “Don’t worry about letting this lot shoot.”
For an exercise in lulling the Premier Leaguers into a false sense of security, Saturday was a master class.
Those half-season tickets at Villa Park that have been guaranteeing a ticket at Wembley don’t look remotely presumptuous if this was anything to go by.
Only ten miles separate Barnet from the national stadium – and that’s as close as the Bantams will be getting if they prove as lackadaisical and negligent in front of goal in the Capital One Cup semi-finals as they did in this one.
It should not have been like this. City had enough of the ball to have put the game out of sight. But they have worryingly left their scoring boots in 2012.
Successive blanks on the road against Morecambe and Barnet are not cause for major meltdown but they have highlighted the need to bring in fresh impetus up front.
No wonder Phil Parkinson is pulling out all the stops to bring someone in as soon as possible.
He was hopeful of introducing a mystery striker for the weekend and thought a deal was done. Unfortunately the player’s club decided otherwise and that one remains in the pending tray.
But as the management keep saying, City do need the lift that reinforcements can provide at this time of the season.
They should have beaten Barnet at a canter. No doubt six weeks ago they would have done so. Chance after chance was created – and wasted.
The party line remains that the cup has not distracted their league focus but recent results do not back that up.
City had carried on merrily before the Arsenal game, perhaps because there was such a long gap between the draw and the quarter-final itself.
This time around it’s been very different. The short turn-around from last eight to last four has produced just a point a game from the five matches.
Fatigue caught up with them in stoppage time at Southend but subsequent results have been stodgy.
For the first time in three months, City find themselves beneath the play-off line. Nothing more than a mid-term blip hopefully but psychologically not what you want to take into Villa part one.
The cup tie has probably come at the right time, given the stuttering run of late. Another chance to relax, enjoy the spotlight and get it out of the system.
I may sound like a curmudgeon but let’s savour the moment and then move on. In the grand scheme of things, Oxford next Saturday should be the priority of the home double header.
It won’t, of course, but there is no greater need right now than three points to right the ship once more.
City cannot afford to become so wrapped up in their giant-killing odyssey that the league is downgraded. They have come too far this season to let things drift.
The tone on Saturday had been set by James Hanson inside the first three minutes when he screwed a shot across goal after being picked out by Ritchie Jones. One opportunity gone, 20 more to follow.
Barnet, on the other hand, created nothing – for the first 42 minutes at least – but then they scored.
Jones was hustled off the ball by Elliot Johnson and the left back’s cross was tapped home by Taiwo Atieno, the lone striker in the home side’s bizarre Christmas tree formation.
City looked visibly sick as they traipsed off at the interval, losing a contest they had controlled.
Parkinson brought on Kyel Reid for Jones for the second half, abandoning the diamond shape that he had kept from New Year’s Day.
But any impetus was immediately sucked out of them as Ricky Holmes picked Rory McArdle’s pocket to set up John Oster for a quickfire Barnet second.
City’s pink-white-pink look could not disguise the ashen faces, nor the realisation that their afternoon was going downhill more dramatically than Underhill’s infamous slope.
Yet more chances came; yet more chances went.
James Hanson was adamant there was nothing wrong with his header 15 minutes from time that would have given them a fighting chance of recovering something.
With only one league goal since September, nobody is more in need of seeing their name on the scoresheet. But the offside flag immediately killed any celebrations.
So his personal drought stretches to one goal in 18 games and the Hanson bashers are fed with more ammunition.
It is an easy stick to beat the big man with but others were equally as guilty of shooting without due care and attention.
Nahki Wells was trying too hard in front of goal, as if the transfer window hype was clouding his head. And the fear many had that when the Bermudian dried up, so would the team is proving worryingly accurate.
Gary Jones, again starting in that advance role behind the front two, pulled the trigger at every opportunity. But his scattergun approach forced only one genuinely testing save from Barnet keeper Graham Stack.
Reid threatened the corner flag more than the home net with one particularly wayward swipe, before Alan Connell saved the worst miss until last, snatching a half-volley over the bar from five yards after Hanson appeared to get a clear shove in the back that went unpunished.
“We were too hurried in our shooting and decision-making,” admitted a hugely-frustrated Parkinson afterwards. “It was almost like we wanted it too much.
“How many great saves has their keeper had to make? Not many, he’s just had comfortable ones.
“We’ve got into so many great positions and had chances and it’s got to be a concern.
“But you have periods in the season when it doesn’t go your way. You’ve just got to keep going, keep doing the right things and, when the chances come, you’ve got to be calm.
“We’ve got players who can score goals but it’s just not happening at the moment.”