Consistency continues to evade City with defeat at The New Den
BRISTOL City's continuing failure to find a level of consistency means 2013 is likely to be every bit as nerve-racking as the previous 12 months for manager Derek McInnes and his players.
If the Robins and their supporters hoped a new year would usher in a long-overdue change of fortunes, they were quickly disabused of the idea in south London.
Afforded an opportunity to establish a three-match unbeaten sequence for the first time this season, City came up short against promotion-chasing Millwall.
Having given their hard-pressed supporters renewed hope by holding Ipswich and beating fellow strugglers Peterborough over the Christmas period, the Robins took a backward step in the capital.
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Truly awful in the first half, the visitors deservedly trailed to Dany N'Guessan's first goal of the season, delivered in some style in the 19th minute.
McInnes responded by introducing substitutes Sam Baldock and Martyn Woolford and abandoning a defensive 5-4-1 system for a more attacking 4-4-2 formation shortly before the break, and the changes threatened to turn a hard-fought contest on its head in the second period. Jon Stead netted his first goal of the season from open play and his first since August to bring City level on 64 minutes and, at that stage, the rejuvenated visitors looked the more likely winners.
But for all their good work and ability to adapt to a different system after the break, the Robins were once again undone by their inability to concentrate and defend at set plays.
Just when it looked as though City would extend their unbeaten run, they were punished for switching off. James Henry delivered a deep free-kick to the far post, Liam Trotter headed the ball back across goal and Adam Smith was left with time and space to smash an unstoppable shot past helpless keeper Tom Heaton.
A bitterly disappointed Stead was left to reflect on a proverbial game of two halves.
He admitted: "We've come away with nothing because of the way we started the game.
"I know we did some good stuff in the second half but, had we started the game better, we could have been looking at a different result come the end.
"We really didn't get going in the first half and we were lucky to only be 1-0 down at half-time.
"We were not at it, were second best in most things and knew we had to change things."
Having ploughed a lonely furrow in the opening 45 minutes and continually run into the brick wall that is Danny Shittu, Stead received much-needed support in the form of mobile side-kick Baldock.
"I did not enjoy the first half at all and it was difficult getting the ball against Shittu," said Stead. "But Sam and I are getting a decent partnership going and I thought we worked well together after he came on.
"It was nice to get a goal, but it would have been a whole lot sweeter had it earned us a point.
"To get back in the game and then lose it the way we did was really disappointing. If we continue to concede goals like that from set-pieces, then we will not win games in this league."
Manager McInnes understandably started with the system that served City so well at Ipswich recently, only to then witness a shocking first-half display from a team that seemed to lack conviction.
Second best in every department, the visitors failed to retain possession or muster a single on-target effort and the only surprise was that they were not further behind at the interval.
N'Guessan profited from hesitancy on the part of centre-back Matthew Bates to fire the Lions in front and Mark Beevers, Trotter and Darius Henderson all spurned chances to put the home side out of sight.
The introduction of Baldock and Woolford and the subsequent change in shape galvanised City after the break and they were the better side for long periods.
But their belated improvement should not be allowed to mask the problems that continue to beset McInnes and his players.