City’s four game unbeaten run at St James’ Park came to an end on Saturday afternoon after Brandon Aguilera’s first-half strike earnt Bristol Rovers all three points in Devon.
After falling behind early on, the Grecians had several opportunities to hit back in the second half but failed to convert any and endured their first home defeat since early December.
Following an impressive 2-1 victory away to a high-flying Barnsley side last weekend, City were looking to continue their rich vein of form and climb further up the table this time out against Bristol Rovers. Positive recent performances had catapulted The Grecians firmly into midtable as they sat six points above the relegation zone in 14th place prior to kick-off.
The Pirates started the day in 11th place and were seeking three valuable points on the South Coast to aid their push towards the play-off places. However, they would have to overcome a City side who claimed victory when the two sides met at the Memorial Stadium just eleven days ago.
Gary Caldwell named an unchanged starting XI from last week’s win at Barnsley, although there was a return to the matchday squad for youngster Luke Harris who missed the trip to South Yorkshire with a hamstring issue. There was also a place amongst the substitutes for new signing Mohamed Eisa who joined the club on loan from Milton Keynes Dons on Tuesday.
Brandon Aguilera started for the visitors after signing on loan from Nottingham Forest on deadline day, with fellow new signings Elkan Baggott and Harry Vaughan only finding a place on the bench. The visit of the Pirates also saw the return of Matt Taylor and Jevani Brown who both appeared at St James’ Park for the first time since their departures.
City started the brighter of the two teams and went close early on when Vincent Harper found space inside the box and struck low towards Jed Ward’s goal, however the Rovers goalkeeper got down well to smother the ball. The chance was the most notable from an early flurry for the home side, but City failed to take an early lead.
This proved costly for the Grecians when Chris Martin’s half-cleared cross fell to Aguilera just outside the penalty area. The visitors’ new signing jinked past a City player before firing the ball into the top left corner of Viljami Sinisalo’s goal. Despite protests from the Grecians after feeling that Reece Cole had been obstructed by the referee in the build-up, the goal stood, and the Pirates snatched an early lead.
City nearly hit back immediately, Harper again finding space inside the box before chopping past a defender and letting fly. His strike sailed past Ward but cannoned against the crossbar before being cleared from danger.
Taylor’s side had the chance to double their lead mid-way through the first half when Harvey Vale’s cross found the head of Anthony Evans. The midfielder did well to stoop low and head his effort towards goal, however Sinisalo produces a wonderful save down to his left to deny the visitors a second.
Rovers continued their period of pressure and went nearest to scoring the second goal of the game just before the break. Aguilera again involved as he was thread through in the box before unleashing a left foot strike at goal. The shot was a good height for Sinisalo though, who palmed away from danger to keep City in the game.
After such a promising start to the game, City struggled to create many chances to equalise following the visitors' opener and went into the break a goal down.
The Grecians started the second half well and went agonisingly close to drawing level only five minutes after the break. Tom Carroll’s pass found Jack Aitchison inside the box who swivelled before striking his effort narrowly wide of the left post and out for a goal kick.
City continued their second half push and went closest to drawing level through Sonny Cox. The 19-year-old found himself clean through on goal after an inch perfect Carroll pass but was thwarted by the outcoming Ward.
The Grecians continued to pile pressure on Ward’s goal and Reece Cole was the next City player to be denied by the Rovers goalkeeper. The midfielder spun past George Friend before firing his shot towards the roof of the net. However, he was denied by the outstretched arm of Ward who palmed over the bar to protect the Rovers advantage.
Cole went close to levelling the game once again when City were awarded a free-kick 25 yards out from goal. His attempt from the set piece took a nick off the Rovers wall and looked to be heading into the back of the net, but once again Ward did well to tip the ball onto the crossbar. Harris was first on hand to head the rebound back at goal, but his effort was also saved by the visitors’ goalkeeper to keep their 1-0 advantage.
City continued to push deep into additional time for an equaliser but came up short and failed to take anything away from the game.
The result means the Grecians fall three places to 17th in the table after a few of the teams directly below were able to secure results elsewhere. For their next instalment of Sky Bet League One action, City host Peterborough United on Tuesday evening where they will be looking to quickly return to winning ways at St James’ Park
Exeter City: Sinisalo, Diabate, Jules, Sweeney, Niskanen, Cole, Carroll, Harper (Harris 72’), Aitchison, Rankine (Wildschut 79’), Cox (Eisa 72’).
Subs: MacDonald, Fitzwater, Hartridge, Kite.
Bristol Rovers: Ward, Wilson, Aguilera, Thomas, Martin, Vale, Evans, Conteh, Crama, Friend, Hunt.
Subs: Hall, Connolly, Gordon, Marquis, Brown, Baggott, Vaughan.
Attendance: 8085 (1137 away).
Referee: Will Finnie.