Mark Perrow reports from Ashton Gate
City reached the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy southern area semi-finals despite a low key display against Sky Bet League Two visitors AFC Wimbledon.
The hosts were far from their best throughout the tie and had to wait until the final 17 minutes to make the breakthrough, as Aaron Wilbraham struck the first of two quick-fire goals to extinguish the threat of a penalty shoot-out.
Wilbraham made it two just four minutes later after latching on to Korey Smith’s pass, but George Francomb’s stunning long-range strike threw the Dons a lifeline.
Francomb came closest to forcing penalties in the second of four added minutes, but Frank Fielding was equal to his free kick to resist an unlikely comeback.
Steve Cotterill made five changes to his side who progressed into the second round of the FA Cup, continuing to share the responsibility throughout his squad in the two-week sabbatical from league action.
Derrick Williams, Joe Bryan, Wes Burns, Smith and Wilbraham were all handed starting berths in place of Luke Ayling, Greg Cunningham, Wade Elliott, Luke Freeman and Kieran Agard.
Bryan, who opened the scoring early on in City’s last home cup tie against Oxford United back in August, was the first to threaten a breakthrough in similar style.
Scott Wagstaff’s cross from the right was neatly taken down by Wilbraham before the ball ran loose for the onrushing Bryan, who showed excellent footwork to weave between two challenges only to shoot well wide on his right foot.
But the League Two side soon grew into the contest and fired a warning shot on 19 minutes through lively forward Adebayo Azeez, who drifted inside and fizzed a low drive goalwards which only evaded the bottom corner by a matter of inches.
It was a close call for the tie’s overwhelming favourites, who suddenly sparked into life as Wilbraham’s cross was almost turned into his own net by Adam Barrett before Smith’s shot from the edge of the box looped over the crossbar via a deflection.
City were far from their fluent best but showed glimpses of their attacking prowess. Burns was presented with a half-chance from a pinpoint Bryan cross but his header was too high before an awkward landing left the youngster needing treatment.
Burns continued to hobble around for a couple of minutes, but his number was soon up as Freeman took his place and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas pushed forward to fill the void alongside Wilbraham.
The absence of Burns and Agard, not named on Cotterill’s five-man bench, left City short of pace up front and lacking cutting edge.
One Aden Flint header apart, which prompted a fine save from James Shea down to his left, Wimbledon were able to see out the first half relatively comfortably and visibly gained in confidence after the break.
When Dannie Bulman’s cross from the right was headed back across goal by Sean Rigg there seemed an open invitation for a yellow shirt to convert, but City’s defenders were quickest to react and snuff out the danger.
Meanwhile, Emmanuel-Thomas was not enjoying a vintage night but remained a problem for the Dons in the final third of the pitch.
Whether his through ball ten minutes into the second half was meant for Wilbraham or Bryan, it forced visiting keeper James Shea to race from his line and stop the Bristolian in his tracks. Had he got it wrong, a penalty would surely have been forthcoming.
Then Emmanuel-Thomas drifted out to the right touchline before typically cutting inside on to his left foot and letting fly with a powerful drive just a couple of yards too high.
In the end the deadlock breaker would come after a decent Wimbledon spell. Livewire Azeez remained the chief outlet with his pace, and temporarily escaped the attentions of Williams who was accused of holding him back by the visitors only to survive appeals for a penalty.
Moments later Azeez showed the Irishman a clean pair of heels to run beyond the attentions of Williams and Flint, but Fielding was alert to rush from his goal line and pounce at the striker’s feet.
It would take 73 minutes for the breakthrough to arrive, thanks to some individual brilliance from Emmanuel-Thomas, who engineered space for a cross towards the back post which was kept alive by Bryan on the stretch and rammed in by Wilbraham for his tenth goal of the season.
City’s top scorer would take only four minutes to take that total to 11, running clear down the inside right channel from Smith’s pass to hit a low shot inside Shea’s near post from 20 yards.
The home side’s passage into the last four of the southern section looked assured, but Wimbledon substitute Francomb kept the hopes of the underdogs alive with a stunning 25-yard strike that flew like an arrow beyond Fielding’s right hand and glanced the post on its way into the net.
Suddenly Cotterill’s men were hanging on, but Fielding pushed aside Francomb’s sweetly struck free kick from even longer range to keep City’s hopes of a Wembley final intact.