npower League 2 play-off semi-final action from the Coral Windows StadiumThe scene is set for an epic encounter at the Pirelli Stadium on Sunday when the Brewers will take a slender 3-2 lead into the second leg of their npower League 2 play-off semi-final. The Brewers produced a superb away performance to send the travelling fans back home truly believing that a place at Wembley could be theirs.
There was never a better time to secure a first ever win at the Coral Windows Stadium and two goals from Calvin Zola had Albion on their way before half an hour was gone. Nahki Wells penalty after a Damien McCrory handball halved the deficit but Robbie Weir's goal just before half time restored Albion's advantage. A tight second half got even more tense when Garry Thompson lashed home with a quarter of an hour to go but Albion held on for what they hope will be a crucial lead.
For the first leg of the semi-final Gary Rowett unsurprisingly range the changes from the side that finished the regular league campaign against Gillingham at the weekend. Stuart Tomlinson retained his place in goal behind a back four of Anthony O'Connor, Ian Sharps, Marcus Holness and Damien McCrory. Zander Diamond was asked to play a holding role in front of the defence with a midfield four of Alex MacDonald on the right, Jacques Maghoma on the left and Robbie Weir partnered by John McGrath in the centre. Calvin Zola returned to the starting line-up as the lone striker.
Albion certainly made the more purposeful start and an early chance to test keeper Jon McLaughlin was presented to them when Jacques Maghoma was bundled over in the third minute. Albion's top scorer stepped up but fired his self won free kick went straight into the defensive wall and Damien McCrory's effort was also blocked inside the penalty area.
Bradford quickly got into their stride and a flurry of early corners allowed them to test out Albion's rearguard. Burton dealt with it and began to settle again.
A good opportunity opened itself up on nine minutes when Calvin Zola played in Alex MacDonald but the on loan winger could not dig the ball out from under his feet and he ended up poking a tame shot straight at McLaughlin.
Once the early sparring was out of the way the game settled into something of a midfield battle. Another chance came for Albion on 18 minutes but after turning smartly on the ball 25 yards out Calvin Zola could not keep his shot down and it flew harmlessly wide.
Four minutes later and Albion were ahead through their tall Congolese striker. John McGrath and Jacques Maghoma linked up down the left and Albion's leading scorer was able to turn provider with a superb cross that ZOLA met perfectly with a header from six yards out that left McLaughlin standing.
MacDonald quickly had another chance on the edge of the box but was crowded out as he tried to head goalwards and Bradford had a chance to reply with a set piece of their own. Gary Jones delivered the ball into the area after Marcus Holness had been adjudged to have impeded Garry Thompson but when the ball arrived at the head of Rory McArdle he could not keep the ball down.
28 minutes in and Albion had a two goal lead. Zander Diamond hooked a hopeful ball into the area and when ZOLA brought the ball down there did not appear much on but the striker tricked his way inside before firing an unerring shot into the far corner of the net.
Stuart Tomlinson had a stroke of good fortune just after the half hour mark when he needed two chances to drop onto a free kick launched into the area and when Nahki Wells poked a shot wide of the post, albeit with Ian Sharps well placed to clear it was clear that Albion still had plenty of work to do.
The Brewers were agonisingly close to a third goal on 34 minutes when a flowing move saw Robbie Weir play an inch perfect pass into the path of John McGrath bursting into the area but McLaughlin came out quickly to deny him as he tried to poke the ball past him from ten yards.
As often happens, a near miss at one end precedes a goal at the other. Bradford launched another attack and when Thompson fired in a shot Damien McCrory blocked it inside the area with the use of a hand as he fell on the ball. Referee James Adcock paused and pointed to the spot giving Nahki WELLS the chance to step up and get the Bantams right back in it. An opportunity that one of League 2's deadliest striker's didn't miss.
A minute before half time and Albion had restored their two goal lead. A superb ball from Anthony O'Connor got Alex MacDonald in behind the Bradford defence down the right and with the home defence stretched he delivered a perfect cut back for Robbie WEIR to sweep the ball home from twelve yards out.
Half-time: Bradford City 1 - 3 Burton Albion
Burton were quickly on ther attack again at the start of the second half. Zander Diamond was fouled to the right of the penalty area but Maghoma could only fire his free kick towards the upper tier of the stand behind the goal.
The Bantams made a double change on 57 minutes to try and get themselves back into the first leg. Speed merchant Kyel Reid was brought on down the left in place of Will Atkinson and there was another straight swap in the centre of midfield where Nathan Doyle replaced Ricky Ravenhill.
Bradford were almost handed a lifeline on 63 minutes all of the Brewers doing. A dreadful piece of defending gave Wells a superb chance on the edge of the area but Stuart Tomlinson reacted superbly to block his shot at close quarters and James Hanson was unable to bury the rebound from the angle of the area.
Albion made their first change of the game on 67 minutes. After a superb performance with two goals to his name it was Calvin Zola who made way with Billy Kee coming on to continue ploughing the lone furrow up front.
The home substitutions were certainly giving Bradford more impetus going forward and the Bantams twice went close around the seventy minute mark. Wells turned a shot goalwards only to see if deflect behind off Marcus Holness and then when a cross came through the six yard box the Bermudan striker could not quite stretch far enough to convert the chance at the far post.
The game was heading towards the final quarter of an hour when Bradford got a vital goal after a spell of concerted pressure. The ball fell nicely for experienced winger Garry THOMPSON who let fly from just outside the box and the ball was past Tomlinson in a flash.
Albion were quickly back on the attack and could have restored their two goal cushion again moments later. A low pull back from Maghoma on the left came to MacDonald and hhis right foot shot clipped the top of the crossbar with McLaughlin beaten.
With Marcus Holness having picked up a yellow card in the first half, Stuart Tomlinson and Alex MacDonald followed him in the second period. Tomlinson clearly wasted time delaying retrieving the ball for a Burton free kick and MacDonald was late with a challenge on Kyel Reid as he scampered down the left wing.
The Bantams threw on Alan Connell in place of Wells with a couple of minutes to go as they went in search of a late equaliser to make all things square ahead of the return leg at Burton on Sunday. Albion responded by taking off Alex MacDonald off and bringing Manchester City loanee Adam Drury on for the closing stages.
The signal for six minutes of added time gave Bradford a last chance to pile some pressure on and there were more than a few nerves when a low ball through the area came to James Hanson at the far post but off balance and back to goal he couldnt divert the ball on target.
Albion survived without any further scares and so it is back to Burton in three days time for the conclusion of this epic semi-final.
BRADFORD: Duke, Darby, McArdle, Nelson, Meredith; Thompson, Jones, Ravenhill, Atkinson; Hanson, Wells. Substitutes: Duke, Reid, Gray, McHugh, Connell, Hines, Doyle.
BURTON: Tomlinson; O'Connor, Sharps, Holness, McCrory; Diamond; MacDonald, Weir, McGrath, Maghoma; Zola. Substitutes: Webster, Lyness, Phillips, Paterson, Drury, Kee, Symes.
Referee: Mr. J.Adcock (Nottinghamshire)
GOALS: Bradford - Wells (37 pen), Thompson (74); Burton - Zola (22, 28), Weir (44)
Attendance: 14,657 (656 away)