Brewers 0-2 Bulls
Evans ’23 0-1
Arquin ’78 0-2
Burton Albion’s promotion aspirations were jolted with an unwelcome dose of reality by perennial League Two strugglers Hereford United at the Pirelli Stadium.
After being made to look anything but play-off candidates by lowly Dagenham and Redbridge with a draw in their previous home outing, the relegation-haunted Bulls went one better by beating their lofty League Two rivals.
Despite Albion’s league position, performances haven’t always been vintage and just their second home defeat of the season exposed various chinks in their armour which have often been masked by results.
The Brewers enjoyed no shortage of possession but could muster little in the way of end product to show for their lacklustre efforts which failed miserably to live up to the new-found expectations that accompanies high-flying teams.
And once Will Evans had caught the hosts cold with a sweet strike in the 23rd minute, Albion rarely threatened to meaningfully test a distinctly ordinary Hereford side.
Andy Corbett’s 64th minute dismissal hardly made matters smoother but Ross Atkins’ brilliant save from the resultant Bulls spot kick brought brief hope of an unlikely comeback similar to the 3-2 triumph at Edgar Street in November.
But that half-hearted optimism was soon dashed in convincing fashion when Yoann Arquin lashed home an unstoppable drive late on.
Even Albion’s normally lethal strike force could find no way past a resolute Bulls backline who notched a well-earned clean sheet, supplemented by several pacy counter attacks that exploited Burton’s defensive naivety all too easily.
In the end, the Brewers were left ruing their failure to defeat a Morecambe side that were there for the taking on Saturday and could count themselves fortunate to have not been disposed of by a more decisive margin by the Bulls.
Calvin Zola was one of few Brewers players to emerge with any real credit as he battled away in vain attempting to revive Albion’s slide to defeat.
Another was Chris Palmer who again showed energy and ingenuity in the central midfield department.
Albion took to home turf in their white away strip after a bizarre mix-up at the Hereford end in which the wrong kit was packed.
And the Brewers might have been wishing they could reproduce their away form that has bought more festive cheer than their usually reliable Pirelli fortunes.
Boss Paul Peschisolido’s defensive worries were eased as former Hereford man Tony James made a surprise return to the back four in their only change from New Year’s Eve.
Albion saw the lion’s share of the ball during a scrappy opening, but it was the Bulls’ quick breaks that posed the greater threat.
With Burton’s attacks floundering, Joe Colbeck twice darted forward at an alarming pace. It was a warning sign that Albion regrettably didn’t heed.
The Brewers were playing with patience but without penetration and goal machine Billy Kee’s shot was unusually weak after Zola’s knock down on 20 minutes.
The visitors then shocked the languid Albion by striding ahead three minutes later.
Dangerman Tom Barkhuizen collected a half-clearance and fed Evans who drifted into the area before cutting inside McGrath and rifling superbly low past Atkins.
Albion were lucky not to fall further behind on the half hour when Barkhuizen sent a close-range header over with the goal at his mercy.
Zola tried his utmost to drag Albion level single-handedly and worked himself a shooting opportunity with a run along the byline, but opted to shoot into the side netting from an acute angle when squaring the ball would have been a better option.
Skipper John McGrath then flashed a half-volley too high from the edge of the area after Aaron Webster’s long throw was only partially cleared.
Albion were improving at a steady rate and Cleveland Taylor sidefooted wastefully wide from 15-yards after a clever quick free-kick.
Minutes before the break the dangerous Cobeck’s snap shot was straight at Atkins.
It took until the final minute of the half for Albion to string a notable attacking move together when Taylor’s cross fell to Kee whose six-yard shot was deflected narrowly over.
Peschisolido reacted to the below-par opening 45 by throwing on hitman Justin Richards for the out-of-sorts Kee.
Any half-time hair-dryer treatment from the manager didn’t have the desired effect. A long-range Taylor effort comfortably held by Bartlett aside, Hereford came out the more purposeful side.
A free-flowing move was perfect bar the finish as Simon Clist’s 20-yard curler clipped the outside of the relieved Atkins’ post on 50 minutes.
Argentinian Andres Gurrieri was originally subbed on in place of McGrath in the 58th minute to add some much needed offensive impetus – but the tactics behind it were only briefly evident following Corbett’s red card.
The attack-minded Gurrieri had to drop to an unfamiliar right-back role in a team reshuffle.
Colbeck played Barkhuizen one-one-one with Atkins in an incisive counter attack and the long-serving right back was uncharacteristically cynical in hacking down the midfielder as he was about to pull the trigger, giving the referee no option but to show Corbett red and point to the penalty spot.
Barkhuizen stepped up himself but Atkins produced a brilliant save low to his left.
Delroy Facey nearly made amends for his team mate’s missed penalty with a header from the ensuing flag kick which Zola cleared off the goal-line.
The same player squandered a golden chance to pull the Bulls clear after 67 minutes when he fired straight at Atkins after being put through on goal.
After escaping a catalogue of scares, it looked for all the world as if Albion had turned a corner when Gurrieri’s defence-splitting pass put Zola in the clear on 76 minutes.
The lanky striker steadied himself before sliding in a shot which was nudged marginally past the post by the faintest of touches from Bartlett.
That miss proved costly as just two minutes after the Bulls all but wrapped up the victory.
French striker Yoann Arquin wrapped his left boot around a loose ball 25-yards out and sent a rasping shot arrowing into Atkins’ bottom corner.
It was only after that blow that Albion started to show more urgency and step up a gear.
But there wasn’t even to be the scant consolation of a late strike to restore some pride.
Zola twice nodded wide from Chris Palmer corners and saw a shot well blocked.
The Congolese front man kept plugging away, but yet another flag kick routine’s header was repelled by a great point-blank Bartlett stop and Gurrieri’s 20-yard hit was deflected inches off target.