Sickness in the camp is having a real debilitating effect
THESE are extremely testing times for everybody connected with Bristol City.
A meagre return of one win in ten games and a worrying sequence of four straight defeats have seen the Robins slip into the relegation zone and revived unpleasant memories of last season's protracted fight for Championship survival.
As so often happens in these situations, a plethora of additional problems are now threatening to undermine the return to winning ways that must somehow be achieved soon if City are to avert another season of struggle.
Injuries to key players are mounting and manager Derek McInnes was forced to play the unwell Stephen McManus after fellow centre-backs Louis Carey and James Wilson joined a casualty list that already includes Greg Cunningham, Liam Fontaine and Neil Kilkenny.
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And City's cause is scarcely being helped by the untimely sickness bug that has already laid a number of senior players low and is now threatening to disrupt the manager's preparations ahead of difficult away games at Huddersfield Town and Birmingham.
Perhaps City's current predicament is all the more worrying because it is so entirely unexpected.
Although the nation's bookmakers and a majority of media pundits predicted another battle against the dreaded drop, expectations within Ashton Gate were altogether different, fuelled as they were by a raft of summer signings and an encouraging start to the campaign that saw Crystal Palace and Cardiff City summarily dismissed amid a glut of goals.
Yet the league table does not lie and City find themselves second from bottom after wins for Sheffield Wednesday and Peterborough United catapulted them above the Robins.
If their current modest standing has come as something of a surprise to McInnes, his staff, his players and supporters who are fast becoming accustomed to under-achievement in BS3, there are compelling reasons to explain the club's plight.
Although City's inability to keep a single clean sheet this season has been well documented, that particular failing represents the biggest single threat to the team's second tier status. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that, if the Robins continue to concede goals at the rate they are, they will be in deep trouble come the business end of the campaign. Whether he likes it or not, McInnes is charged with the task of remedying the worst defensive record in the Championship.
It ought to be a cause for concern that, in an effort to render his team more difficult to beat, he made five changes to his starting line-up and adopted a different playing system, all without the desired effect.
City may have improved when it comes to defending set pieces, but many of the issues that have contributed to them conceding 28 goals in 13 games continue to dog them.
It was altogether too easy for Hull to play through the home side and exert pressure on City's 18-yard box and, with a little more composure on the final third, Steve Bruce's Tigers would have won by a wider margin.
Hull always appeared to have options when going forward and a City side set-up to play narrow was again powerless to disrupt a more or less constant supply of balls played in from the flanks.
The opening goal, scored by former Glasgow Rangers striker Sone Aluko after eight minutes, was a case in point. Five defenders were caught ball watching as Aluko accepted a return pass from Jay Simpson and, having carved through City's defence like a proverbial knife through butter, completed the easy task of beating Tom Heaton from 10 yards.
And Hull's decisive second goal was even more of a gift, stemming as it did from a collective seizure of will on the part of red-shirted defenders who failed to take responsibility for closing down Aluko.
Although his shot was saved by Heaton, Stephen Quinn drilled the loose ball back across the six yard box and Cole Skuse inadvertently chested it past his goalkeeper and into his own net. But the responsibility for the goal surely rests with those players who made it so easy for Aluko to shoot in the first place.
Closing players down and denying the opposition options are basic tenets that this City team appears unable to adhere to and, until this problem is resolved, the Robins will struggle to keep clean sheets.
Desperate to stop the rot and hindered by a mounting casualty list, McInnes is making more and more changes in pursuit of an elusive clean sheet, so much so that he has now moved a long way from the side that was winning games during the early part of the season.
No matter which team he selects, City can be relied upon to muster a cutting edge in the final third and, for a while at least, Stephen Davies' fourth goal in three games appeared enough to earn a precious point.
City's 25th-minute equaliser was the culmination of arguably the best move of the game, suggesting this team has the firepower to extricate itself from a sticky situation.
But the likelihood of that happening will be dramatically diminished if City continue to have to score three goals or more to win a game.