Burton Albion 3, Barnsley 1
(SkyBet League One)
Was this the day that Barnsley’s hopes of an automatic promotion spot went for a Burton?
It could well be.
While the Reds were suffering their first defeat in 21 matches, their second spot rivals Sunderland and Portsmouth were both winning away and the former are now level on points with the Oakwell team with two games in hand.
Pompey, who are just two points behind, have also played one game fewer than Barnsley, so they, too, have a chance of overhauling Daniel Stendel’s stuttering side,
It has been apparent in recent matches that the Reds’ standards have slipped. Although still producing some eye-catching football at times they have looked uncharacteristically sloppy at the back, they have not been as authoritative in midfield and, in the unfortunate absence of injured top scorer Kieffer Moore they have lacked penetration up front.
Five draws and three wins in the eight matches prior to their visit to the Pirelli Stadium had slowed the momentum of the ten wins and four draws which had raised hopes of clinching the second automatic promotion place behind Luton Town since their last defeat, 1-0 away to Wycombe way back on the eighth of December.
And against Burton, who held the Reds to a goalless draw in the re-arranged encounter at Oakwell in February, they looked like a team who had finally run out of steam, just one short of equalling a club record run of 21 unbeaten games set in 1934.
They were lethargic from the kick-off, fell behind after only five minutes, continued to struggle to string passes together, and could have fallen further behind before the double substitution of Mike Bahre and Callum Styles for Mamadou Thiam and Jacob Brown just before the hour mark brought some improvement.
But then, in a frenetic finish, they conceded further goals either side of a Cauley Woodrow penalty as Burton clocked up their third successive victory.
Stendel made just one change from the side which started the 2-2 draw against Coventry City at Oakwell the previous week, Dani Pinillos returning after injury to replace Ben Williams at left-back.
The early signs, however, were ominous. Burton looked far busier and brisker in the early exchanges and in the fifth minute Marcus Harness set up a chance for Scott Fraser. Barnsley goalkeeper Adam Davies, who has been outstanding all season, this time failed to make a clean save and Jamie Allen was the first to react, slotting home the resulting loose ball to give his side the lead.
It looked as though it was going to get worse for the Reds when Liam Boyce went tumbling in the box but there was relief when referee Michael Salisbury booked the player for simulation, and there was another reprieve when Lucas Atkins had a goal disallowed for offside.
It was the Reds’ turn to appeal for a penalty before the break, Buxton players claiming there had been a hand ball, but the referee thought otherwise.
Burton had a great chance to double their advantage immediately after half-time, Davies this time coming to the rescue with a good save from the striker’s attempted lob, and Harness squandered another golden opportunity just before the hour mark, shooting wide when a goal seemed inevitable.
It was immediately after that escape that Stendel made his double substitution and for the first time in the game the Reds began to look capable of salvaging something from a performance that had hitherto been very much below par.
Ryan Hedges forced Collins into his first noteworthy save and Cauley Woodrow sent a header inches over the bar.
But the visitors were caught by a sucker punch when Harness split the defence with a great through ball and Boyce sneaked in to beat the offside trap, and the goalkeeper, to make it 2-0.
Five minutes from time a perplexing penalty award provided Woodrow with the opportunity to notch his 16th goal of the season to revive Barnsley hopes, which were quickly dashed when, with the Reds throwing caution to the wind in search of the equaliser, Burton broke clear for Harness to put the issue beyond any remaining doubt.
Burton Albion: Collins; Brayford, McFadzean, Buxton, Daniel, Allen (Wallace, 90+1 mins), Fraser (Fox, 78 mins), Quinn, Harness, Akins, Boyce (Miller, 90+4 mins).
Barnsley (4-4-2): Davies; Cavare, Lindsay, Pinnock, Pinillos; Brown (Styles, 59 mins), McGeehan, Mowatt, Hedges; Thiam (Bahre, 59 mins), Woodrow.
Bookings: Boyce (Burton); Bahre, Woodrow (Barnsley).
Referee: Michael Salisbury.