Yesterday lunchtime Cardiff City brought the curtain down on their home programme for the regular league season with a 1-1 draw with Leeds United which was fairly typical of the fare served up at Cardiff City Stadium in 2011/12 in that you went away from the game with no complaints about the team’s attitude, but ruing their lack of a cutting edge and their inability to kill opponents off when they were on top in games. This time though, the penalty for dropping home points was more severe as Middlesbrough’s surprising 2-1 victory over a very disappointing Southampton team a few hours later meant that our four point lead over them was whittled down to two and Tony Mowbray’s side had ensured that the race for the last Play Off place will go into the final match of the campaign.
As is the case at every club I suppose, there’s a lot of talk at Cardiff at the start of each season about turning our home ground into a “fortress”, but, especially in this most competitive of leagues, it’s one thing to talk about such matters and another to actually manage it. I don’t feel we’ve achieved this aim in any of the nine seasons since we returned to this level, but, given the excellent start we made, the failure to do so this time around makes it feel all the more disappointing.
When we beat Birmingham on December 4, we had taken twenty three points out of thirty from our home matches. Seven wins and two draws from ten games is automatic promotion, let alone Play Off, form, so to end up with a record that has us winning less than half of our matches at Cardiff City Stadium has to be seen as big let down. Eleven wins and seven draws from twenty three home matches isn’t a bad record I suppose, but I believe a side pushing for a top six finish would expect to do better than that. Twenty nine goals conceded is much too high a figure and yesterday was the seventh time we had held a lead in home matches which we ended up not winning – it’s inevitable that comparisons will be made between Dave Jones and Malky Mackay as Malky’s first season in charge ends and, in many ways, I’d say our manager comes out of such comparisons well, but I’m pretty sure both of those figures tended to be a fair bit lower under our former boss.
Ironically though, the display in the game that completed our home programme was, in my opinion, our best at Cardiff City Stadium for some time (as far as league matches go, I don’t think we’ve played as well since beating Reading on January 2). If any two games proved the truth of the old adage that it’s results and not performances that count at this stage of the season, it was the ones seen at Cardiff City Stadium over the past five days. We played much better yesterday than we did against Derby in midweek and yet the Play Off place that had looked a virtual certainty is now down to the ranks of a probability – still not bad at all, but, given the precedent of 08/09, we all know that nowhere near as much has to go wrong now as it did then for us not to make the top six.
I was listening to Wales coach Osian Roberts talking about City on the way to the game and he was saying that he was impressed by how Malky Mackay had gradually ingrained his way of thinking into the way we play. As an example he said that David Marshall was far more inclined to belt the ball upfield in the early months of the season, but now when he has the ball, our centre backs split and he invariably gives it to one of them as we try and build from the back. I had been vaguely aware of this over the past few months, but paid particular attention to it yesterday and, it’s true – it’s not very often the keeper kicks it long now. We have become more of a passing team (albeit one which retains the option of going long if and when we can get Rudy Gestede fit) and, although it’s not always been the case, yesterday that approach was working for us – we generally passed the ball pretty well and, although we were never completely on top, I thought we were looking as comfortable as any team can do at 1-0 up until Leeds’ out of the blue equaliser.
I used the word “generally” in relation to our passing there because in the most important area of the pitch, it didn’t match what we saw elsewhere. For me, Joe Mason had an excellent first half, but I’d say overall Liam Lawrence (who I criticised a fair bit earlier matches, but he’s been very good recently) pipped him for City’s man of the match and yet both players wasted excellent second half opportunities, which saw them get to the Leeds byeline, with poor crosses. In Lawrence’s case, his pass was hugely over hit and I’m afraid the same description could be applied to too much of Peter Whittingham’s shooting (particularly from free kicks) and passing lately – we were careless at times when we got into the final third of the pitch.
To be fair to the man who deservedly won the Supporters Club Player of the Year award last night, Whittingham was more influential than he has been recently – just as he did with Michael Chopra’s winner last season when the two teams met, he played a glorious long pass to open up the Leeds defence that allowed Mason (who, for some reason, doesn’t seem to like scoring at the Canton Stand end!) to lob in our goal. Not long afterwards, Whittingham was at it again as he put Kenny Miller through on goal – this was the sort of chance Miller was gobbling up earlier in the season, but, unfortunately, his goal against Watford has not completely restored his finishing touch and he never looked that convincing as he allowed Lonergan to save.
The keeper’s fabulous second half save to deny Andrew Taylor’s sweetly struck volley was mentioned by Malky Mackay after the match, but, for me, Miller’s miss was as much, if not more, of an important moment in the game because, far from being the highly motivated, snarling and snapping outfit that I was expecting them to be, Leeds seemed pretty tame to me. Disinterested would be too strong a word to use to describe them, but I couldn’t help thinking that there would not have been much of a response from them to going 2-0 down before half time if Miller had scored and the opportunity would have been there to record a big win. Instead of that though, that inability to kill off sides in home matches that I mentioned earlier resurfaced and the visitors were able to get a foothold in the match, which eventually enabled them to score a well worked equaliser.
City’s response to being pegged back to 1-1 was pretty impressive – Filip Kiss’ introduction gave us some midfield urgency (something we tend to lack in our normal starting line up midfield) and we did put our opponents under a fair bit of pressure, but the lack of precision when we got into dangerous areas haunted us to the end. Just as we have had to do too many times at Cardiff City Stadium lately, we had to settle for a draw against the sort of side that the league table tells us we should be beating.
As to what the league table tells us about next week, well Middlesbrough’s away record (and their high energy display yesterday) suggests they can win at Watford despite the fact that Sean Dyche’s team have only lost one in twelve. To my way of thinking, we have to assume that Boro will win, but, with us having spent virtually the whole season drawing on the grounds of teams in the lower half of the table and Palace’s home record exactly matching our away figures of won seven, drawn eleven and lost four, it seems to me that yet another draw has to be the most likely outcome – if only there weren’t those demons from 08/09 hovering in the background tormenting us though!
pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/