I daresay that at 3.45 yesterday afternoon a lot of Sheffield Wednesday fans were getting pretty twitchy. Their side, which had been so relentless in their pursuit of a Play Off place in recent months that they had broken clear from the pursuing pack to reach a stage where they were beginning to be regarded as certainties for a top six finish, were 3-0 down to Bristol City at Ashton Gate.
Worse still, the one team who could realistically entertain thoughts of denying them their place in those Play Offs were 1-0 up at Craven Cottage against Fulham – Cardiff City were in a position to take the feelgood factor which had developed at the club over the past month or so up another notch.
Little over an hour later, the cold, hard data told you that, although Wednesday had not threatened to turn the situation in their match around as they slipped to a 4-1 defeat, their chances of a top six finish were even better than they had been before kick off because the gap of five points between them and their nearest pursuer had been maintained and now those pursuers had once less game left in which to catch the Owls.
By conceding goals in the first and last minutes of the second half, Cardiff had turned a potential three points into none and, all of a sudden, a task which had been a big one begins to look Herculean this morning, but there are a few things that those with a glass half full disposition can cling on to.
While our goal difference is so far behind all of the sides above us that it would appear that we are a point worse off than the table makes us look, the truth is that we still have fifteen points to play for and we need to turn around a deficit which has three clubs not even half that number clear of us.
In my review of our game at Burnley in midweek I said that Derby’s 4-0 win over Hull on the same night was the sort of result which could transform their season, so if that is true when a result goes for you, can’t the reverse also apply when a team suffers a shocking, heavy defeat that no one had seen coming? Bristol City 4 Sheffield Wednesday 1 falls into that category in my book.
Why, wasn’t there some team a few years back that had four matches left to play, who were eight points clear of the team (who had played a match more than them) in seventh place and had a goal difference of +22 compared to their rival’s +4, which ended up losing out on the Play Offs because their goal differences were identical, but they had scored less goals over the season? Who were that side I wonder!
Could Bristol City 4 Sheffield Wednesday 1 end up being the Hillsborough club’s equivalent of Preston 6 Cardiff 0 in 2008/09?
After his side’s humbling, Wednesday coach Carlos Carvalhal said “It was a day off for us in the Championship. It is a long competition and you get accidents along the way.”. I can remember him saying something similar after his team had surprisingly been beaten 3-1 at Charlton in the autumn and Wednesday’s impressive run of form in the weeks which followed showed that Carvalhal had been right to remain philosophical about that unexpected loss, but this latest one has come right at the business end of the season, rather than at a time when there is long enough to go to absorb an unconvincing run of four of five matches.
Wednesday now have a couple of home matches in which they can put things right, but I bet the atmosphere at Hillsborough when they face Ipswich next Saturday will be a lot more tense than many expected it to be after they had recorded their fourth successive victory last Tuesday by seeing off Blackburn at home.
So, if Wednesday might now have a few newly found mental demons to conquer, what about the other side it was thought we could catch, Derby, and is Hull’s poor form putting them into a position whereby the nightmare of a seventh place finish could become a reality?
Derby followed up that big win over Hull by scoring four more at home as they put Bolton out of their misery by confirming their relegation. This means Derby will go on their travels over the next ten days with renewed confidence, but, based on recent evidence, the very fact that they are playing outside their home City makes them come over all strange – they still need to start showing some conviction away from home, after all they face two matches out of three outside Derby in the Play Offs if they are to be promoted.
Sadly though, we’re now at a stage where if Derby can maintain their very good home form by winning their last two matches on their own ground, we’re probably going to need to win all of our remaining games to overhaul them, even if they get nothing from their three remaining away fixtures.
A 2-2 draw at Huddersfield means that it’s now one win in nine matches in all competitions for Hull, so, despite the fact that they will take heart from getting a point after falling behind in the 90th minute, the Humberside club are going through a phase which cannot just be written off as a blip.
You can look at the remaining fixtures of all of the three sides above us and see plenty of matches which you’d back them to win – for example, three of Hull’s next four matches are at home to teams with nothing to play for. However, going back to 2008/09, our last three games after the Preston mauling were against a team that was all but relegated and two sides which knew they had no chance of going up or down.
So, there are going to be games from now on where there will be one team beset by fear of failure against another one who may be already on their holidays mentally or could be out to enjoy themselves as their season winds down – if it’s the latter, then they become dangerous opponents for a tense team (especially if they are playing in front of their own nervy supporters).
Yes, Sheffield Wednesday, Derby and Hull all have the potential to drop points when you wouldn’t expect them to as the prize which enables them to maintain the promotion dream, which has them all spend millions in the transfer market in the last eleven months, gets closer. However, to fail now would be devastating for any of them, whereas I’ve never believed that to be true at Cardiff.
Seven years ago, many City fans were thinking with four games to go that we were on our way to automatic promotion. A top six finish was being taken for granted and, even with the disaster which followed against Preston, Charlton, Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday, that would have happened if the first named hadn’t been good enough to take full advantage of our implosion.
That’s where the big question lies with Cardiff City and their Play Off pursuit in 2015/16 – we are never going to feel the stifling pressure of expectation, because it’s hard to see how we can get into the top six early enough to have to play a couple of games where we would have to maintain that position now, but do we have it in us to put together the run of results which will take advantage of any wobble from the three sides above us?
This is where things start to get problematical as far as I’m concerned. I’ll come to what happened yesterday shortly, but we are talking about a side here which has struggled to put together those clusters of wins which any team that finds itself in the top six come the end of a campaign strings together as a matter of course.
So far this season, our best points return from a five game group of fixtures is eleven. This came back in August and September when we managed to win more than two games on the trot for the only time as we followed up draws with QPR and Blackburn with wins over Wolves, Forest and Huddersfield – since then, we have only once managed to record consecutive victories when Preston and Bristol City were both overcome around six weeks ago.
Therefore, if we equal our best five match run so far, we’ll end up with seventy four points, which, when you bear in mind our relatively poor goal difference, means that, in all probability, Derby and Hull would have to take just three points from their remaining matches to finish below us, while a point a game for Sheffield Wednesday would see them also fall short of us on seventy three points.
I suppose Wednesday just getting one win and two draws or all of their remaining matches finishing all square is possible, but I cannot see Hull or Derby slipping up so badly. so the likelihood is that we will need more than eleven points to make it.
No, for me, four of our next five games need to be won for us to have a realistic chance of extending our season and, if we are going to draw one of them, then it shouldn’t really be at Sheffield Wednesday.
Sadly, that looks beyond us I fear. While our home form is good enough to suggest we could get nine points from the three games we have left at Cardiff City Stadium, we are nowhere near as convincing away from home and, with Brentford on a winning run now, I’ve no great belief that we can win either of our remaining away fixtures.
After the Burnley match, people talked about us having momentum – was that really true? Yes, we have momentum at home, but a look at the return from our last three away games shows you that this is hardly the case when we travel.
I said at the time and I still say now that the 0-0 draw at Burnley was a point gained rather than two lost, but it needed to be backed up with at least one win in the two away games either side of it.
Now, Fulham are a team you cannot take lightly because they have a strike partnership that any Championship team should envy (I believe we’d be up with Burnley, Middlesbrough and Brighton now if McCormack and Dembele were Cardiff players), but they and Reading are teams that we should be looking to take a total of three or four points off, rather than the one we managed.
What was galling about yesterday was that we conceded such poor goals – letting Scott Parker break beyond our back four with no one tracking him twenty seconds after the game restarted hinted at unfit minds rather than bodies, while there were ample chances to deal with the corner which led to the home side’s winner in added time.
Both of the goals asked questions of our manager’s approach. Having used Kagisho Dikgacoi to screen the back four at Burnley, would someone like him or the rested Stuart O’Keefe have seen us defend the situation better for their equaliser and did the decision to bring two strikers on as subs convey the message that a draw was no good to us, leading to a situation where we were not properly switched on for that late corner?
I’ve not been backward in coming forward about being critical of Russell Slade in the past when I’ve thought he deserved it, but I don’t believe it would be justified for me to do that today.
While I’m not generally a fan of squad rotation and wonder whether we have the depth to be able to do it effectively anyway, I have to accept that, especially these days, clubs are far better placed to judge when someone could do with a game off than “experts” who watch from the sidelines like me are – I can’t help thinking that we would have been caught cold for their equaliser, no matter who was in our midfield.
Similarly with the winning goal, I believe our manager was right to send on Kenneth Zohore and Idriss Saadi with the score at 1-1 – as he said in his post match remarks, this was a game that we really needed a win from and his substitutions reflected that. If some of our players switched off for the winning goal because they felt the changes made meant it was win or bust, when the truth was that every point we gain may be vital now, that’s their fault, not the manager’s.
Our failure to see a very promising half time situation through played a leading part in making a league, which is so often praised for it’s competitiveness, look pretty uncompetitive with still a month to go.
Yes, the race to see which two out of three will go up automatically still excites, but, all of a sudden, the bottom three look detached from the rest and the identity of the eventual top six will seem very clear in the minds of those neutrals who analyse such things – can City yet defy the odds and leave us with a final day cliff hanger when it comes to who makes the Play Offs? Despite being greatly heartened by so much that has gone on at the club in recent weeks, I don’t see it happening now.
*pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/