Would anyone have predicted beforehand that just one of the top six going into this weekend’s matches would win their games (especially when you consider that four of them were playing at home)? Anyone going into their local bookies to place an accumulator on Birmingham to win at Brighton, Watford to triumph at Huddersfield and pointless Peterborough to get the three points at Hull, with their 100% winning home record, would surely have been greeted with barely suppressed mirth – you never know, the bookie might have refused to accept the bet out of sympathy………no, forget that!
Bearing this in mind, perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to City after their very comfortable 3-0 win over Blackpool yesterday was that they made the whole thing look so routine. “Boring” is not the right word to use to describe what we saw for most of the second half, but it certainly lacked the competitive edge that you expect from the Championship at times because you got the impression that the visitors knew they were a well beaten side that could do little or nothing to break City’s dominance.
So, although we still have our issues away from home to sort out (next Saturday at struggling bogey team Ipswich will be very significant in that respect), we can, for the moment at least, reflect on a perfect home record of played four, won four which, the disjointed season opener with Huddersfield apart, is made up of quality performances to back up the results. I know it’s very early days yet, but Huddersfield, Wolves, Leeds and Blackpool are all in the top nine of the league at the moment and yet the last three named have all left Cardiff City Stadium with very few grounds for complaint about the outcome (I know Warnock said Leeds deserved a point, but you’d expect that from him!).
Talking of opposing managers mind, as I left the ground I must admit to feeling that Ian Holloway had assisted us greatly with his selection as he made seven changes to the Blackpool side deservedly beaten 3-1 by Huddersfield at Bloomfield Road in last Monday’s televised game. That feeling eased though when I learned that Thomas Ince and Gary Taylor-Fletcher had, in fact, missed out through injury and that there were four full internationals amongst the seven he had brought in – Blackpool have a strength in depth in all positions that we cannot match and I believe that their starting line up yesterday would finish in the top half of the Championship if it played a full season.
City were too good for them yesterday though. Granted, Blackpool enjoyed long spells of possession and moved the ball around well at times, but City defended with resolution and discipline while showing an ability to break with speed and in numbers – qualities which, if repeated, should go a long way towards improving our away record to the sort of levels expected of automatic promotion contenders. Possession was surrendered easier than it was by our opponents at times, but so much of Blackpool’s passing took place in front of as many as eight outfield City players, while we were more successful at playing through the Blackpool midfield or bypassing them completely as we got the ball to our forward players much quicker than they did.
Now, of course, terms like bypassing the midfield and getting the ball forward quickly make it sound like City played a long ball game and it’s true that they were undoubtedly the more direct of the two teams, but, when you have someone in your team who can pass the ball like Peter Whittingham, then the “long ball” takes on a different meaning to the one, with negative connotations, normally associated with it. Two passes in particular spring to mind for me – one diagonal long ball played from the edge of his own penalty area from our left to Craig Bellamy running down the right thirty yards from the Blackpool goal in the first half was an absolute gem and another pass clipped thirty yards down our right hand side in the second was, if anything, more impressive because it was played with his right foot. However, both of them, as well as many others, showed a vision and intelligence deserving of more than being damned with the faint praise of the term “long ball”.
Whittingham’s best moment though was his goal and wasn’t it all so predictable! I’ve seen Blackpool keeper Matt Gilks criticised by some for being beaten on his near post like that, but you’ve got to bear in mind what he was up against. If the Blackpool keeper had taken up a position where he could have saved Whittingham’s shot, he would have been presenting him with a bigger target to hit and as Whitts proved good enough to get the ball into the smaller area that Gilks left him, you have to think that he would have been able to score more easily if left with a bigger area to aim at. Bear in mind as well that if Gilks had stood in a position where he could have saved the shot, he would have been poorly placed to deal with any cross fired in from the free kick. To me, Gilks took the logical decision of thinking that if I cover the near post, there’s, say, a 40% cent chance of it being a goal, but if I cover the far post that risk is halved – unfortunately for him, Whittingham was good enough to upset the odds.
For me, Gilks was more culpable when coming for and missing Whittingham’s corner for our third goal, but, once again, the delivery was so good that it was always tantalisingly out of reach of the keeper – I noticed that Blackpool, rightly, put a wall up for the free kick right out on the touchline that Whittingham forced Gilks to tip over in the second half and, such is the excellence of his dead ball delivery that you wonder whether the opposition might starting using walls for his corners!
The beneficiary from Whittingham’s pinpoint corner (forced by the excellent Craig Bellamy’s relentless closing down of opponents) was Matt Connolly who headed in from point blank range to add to his first half goal from Bellamy’s cut back. Looking at his record before yesterday (five goals in one hundred and forty eight appearances) I don’t think we should expect Connolly to make a habit of finding the net during his Cardiff career, but he is proving to be a capable and assured defender who has, up to now anyway, improved the quality of passing out from the back in the team. Perhaps one reason why Connolly seems to be somewhat under appreciated by the City faithful at the moment is that we have conceded a four and a three in losing causes in two of the matches he’s played, but, as Malky Mackay points out, most of those goals came from individual mistakes and the only one he might be blamed for is Bristol’s fourth which came at a time when we were chasing the game. Connolly has done fine for us so far and he played a leading role in a performance yesterday in which all of the outfield players turned in good displays (I don’t include David Marshall in that simply because he had such a quiet afternoon).
We are second in the table on goal difference with a squad which includes a lot of newcomers who have not yet fully bedded into things yet – it’s an encouraging start, but, if I may end on a bit of a moan, I must admit I found it disappointing that we decided to run the clock down when we had a couple of corners and attacking free kicks in added time at the end of the game. I suspect the pro’s would say that the job had been done by then and, of course, it’s fair enough if we were winning by one, but the score was 3-0 and I’d like to have seen us trying to improve our goal difference (which could be vital come the end of the campaign) as opposed to settling for what we had.
* – picture courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/