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Report: Bristol City 3-1 Port Vale

Bristol City ran out comfortable victors over Port Vale at Ashton Gate to move four points clear at the top of Sky Bet League One with a game in hand.

Far from their best until Jay Emmanuel-Thomas fired them in front on 34 minutes, City never looked back.

Joe Bryan’s heavily deflected shot doubled the advantage on the hour before Matt Smith cashed in on a sloppy backpass to make the game safe.

Mark Marshall reduced the deficit with a late consolation strike, but City could reflect on another job well done in the first of three home games on the spin.

Steve Cotterill restored James Tavernier to his starting line-up at the expense of Mark Little for the third of eight February fixtures.

It was a typically lively start to proceedings at Ashton Gate following the surprisingly low key affair at Stadium:MK three days prior.

City were a little sluggish out of the blocks and should have been punished inside the first four minutes when Carl Dickinson’s cross towards the back post was met by Chris Birchall, who could only send his header high over the crossbar from no more than eight yards with no defenders in attendance.

The home response was immediate. If Birchall was wondering how he had not scored, his sense of frustration was nothing compared to that of Aden Flint.

From Emmanuel-Thomas’ long throw, Vale keeper Chris Neal lost his grip on the ball under pressure from Smith before it ran loose for Flint.

It seemed the defender could not fail to score if he tried, but as he drew his right foot back to rip a hole in the net, Dickinson made a miraculous block to halt the impending celebrations of the Atyeo Stand.

It was an isolated moment of concern inside the Vale penalty area. The visitors were enjoying themselves and Birchall had another chance to put his side in front from Marshall’s clever cutback, but his side-footed shot looked off target before being blocked at close quarters.

At the other end, City would have to wait until the 20th minute to produce a fluent piece of football. Emmanuel-Thomas, Joe Bryan and Luke Freeman were all involved before Wade Elliott stung the palms of Neal with a sweet strike on the run.

It had been far from vintage stuff from Cotterill’s league leaders, who were on the back foot again when Marshall stepped inside and thundered a shot goalwards that had to be pushed aside by Frank Fielding diving high to his left.

But no sooner had Vale reflected on another chance to open the scoring they found themselves behind, as Emmanuel-Thomas produced a moment of magic to break the deadlock on 34 minutes.

Carrying the ball towards the visiting penalty area, the striker evaded two challenges before letting fly with an explosive shot which nearly took the fingers from Neal’s gloves as it crashed against the underside of the crossbar on its way into the net.

Suddenly there was a sense of purpose about City’s play, as Bryan skipped beyond his man and fired a low drive towards the far corner which was tipped around the post by Neal, only for referee Brendan Malone to fail to acknowledge the touch and award a goal kick.

But the hosts soon threatened to shoot themselves into the foot, as a lacklustre pass across his own box from Flint presented the ball to Birchall, who teed up Michael O’Connor to fire another shot goalwards which again forced Fielding to react smartly.

That momentary lapse apart, there could be no denying City had been a different side since the goal.

Freeman was becoming increasingly influential, faking to shoot on his left foot only to be denied by Neal on his right, before seeing the rebound cleared off the line by Frederic Veseli.

It was potentially a moment to put the game to bed just before the interval, but in truth City were never troubled again.

The second half was all about the home team. Freeman tried his own impression of Emmanuel-Thomas with a similarly explosive shot helped over the top by Neal, before Smith was guilty of a bad miss in heading wide from an Elliott corner.

City’s second would arrive on the hour in fortuitous circumstances. Tavernier’s deep cross was taken down by Smith and played out to Bryan on the left, who hit an optimistic shot from 30 yards on his right foot which took a looping deflection off Veseli and cruelly dropped just underneath Neal’s crossbar.

It was the classic example of the sort of goal City were conceding this time last season.

But things are very different at Ashton Gate these days, and Vale dug their own grave seven minutes later when Richard Duffy’s short backpass was seized upon by Smith, who rounded Neal to roll in City’s third.

The only blot on the City copybook would come in the form of the first league goal conceded in 2015 courtesy of Vale’s best player on the night.

When Fielding punched clear a right-wing cross, Marshall was on hand to drill a low shot into the net and end any hopes of a fifth straight clean sheet away from cup competitions.

But City’s level of control was never compromised and the outstanding Emmanuel-Thomas could hardly have come closer to his second of the night, steering a right-footed shot against the inside of the post that somehow spun beyond the far and behind for a goal kick.