Cardiff City made it three games undefeated last night, but, on the face of it, when that trio of fixtures comprise of a home game with the side at the bottom of the Championship sandwiched by a couple of encounters with what I still call a Fourth Division side, I suppose the natural reaction should be “so they should do!”.
That would be perfectly understandable when you consider our current league position, but, as always, there is a context behind things and, when you consider what went on immediately before our mini run of matches without defeat, then it begins to look a bit more of an achievement than it may first appear to be.
Those four consecutive defeats (against sides that were twenty third, eleventh, ninth and eighteenth respectively in the table when we played them) left the real possibility of a repeat of the same sort of collapse that saw an unlikely automatic promotion challenge transformed into a top six possibility that we saw between November 2006 and January 2007 when our season caved in on the back of a run of eleven matches without a win in all competitions.
A home FA Cup tie with a Mansfield side two levels below us in the league structure offered, on paper anyway, an outstanding chance to nip the poor run in the bud, but it could also be argued that, perhaps, more than any other match so far this season, it qualified as a must not lose occasion.
Mansfield may have been supposed inferiors, but, with only one defeat in eighteen competitive matches going into the game, they would, surely, have to be the more confident and settled of the two teams. Certainly, in the second half especially, that’s how it looked as City were clinging on at times in a low key encounter which ended goalless.
I think it shows how deep the crisis at City could have become that, rather than there being a barrage of criticism aimed at the team for their failure to see off a lower league team at home, there was almost a general sense of relief that the losing run had ended – albeit in a manner that hardly suggested that a return to winning ways was imminent.
Seven days later, a struggling Sunderland team that could at least point to a recent draw at leaders Wolves, were the visitors. A repeat of our performance in our previous match would, no doubt, have seen our visitors leaving on the back of another encouraging away result. However, Neil Warnock was making encouraging noises about a better feeling detected in training beforehand and, even though we were still struggling in front of goal and the game had been no great spectacle, the signs, in terms of attitude and confidence, were there at half time that a corner had been turned, despite the 0-0 scoreline.
Obviously, Sunderland being reduced to ten men shortly after the break helped, but they were already 1-0 down by then and, in a game where I had been thinking one goal would be enough to win it for us, we then went on to win comfortably and with a bit of style.
The victory was the most important thing, but to do it to the tune of 4-0 must have helped to erase any doubts that had arisen over the previous three weeks. It definitely did with me anyway as last night’s game switched from being one where I saw Mansfield as being clear favourites, to one where I had a sneaking suspicion that we could seal a money spinning home tie with a Manchester City team that Neil Warnock yesterday called the best club side in the world.
In the event, the final test in the trio of matches that had offered us a potential way back from the depths to which we had fallen over Christmas and the New Year was passed with flying colours, even if four more goals probably flattered us somewhat.
In the first match between the teams ten days earlier, Neil Warnock had picked a stronger side than I for one was expecting and, with the exception of the, presumably, rested Sol Bamba, it was definitely a line up resembling what could be called a first choice eleven, which took the field last night.
Our manager admitted that the carrot of a televised game against Manchester City on Sunday week had influenced his thinking – I think he would have kept to his promise of “playing the kids” if the prize on offer to the winners was a trip to, say, Rochdale!
I was only listening to Radio Wales’ coverage of the game, but the signal coming through loud and clear in the opening minutes was that City would not be found wanting if the game became the sort of hard, physical slog that it threatened to be.
With Anthony Pilkington in for Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Lic Damour replacing Bamba as we opted for a more conventional defensive formation than the one seen on Saturday, City appeared to be carrying more of a threat going forward than they did ten days earlier at Cardiff City Stadium.
Kenneth Zohore probably betrayed his lack of confidence in front of goal when he appeared to be too keen to get a decent chance presented to him by Callum Paterson’s pass on to his left foot and consequently failed to make proper contact with the ball, while keeper Conrad Logan was more seriously tested by one of our players than he ever was in the first match as he leaped to turn aside Junior Hoilett’s curler from twenty yards.
It was far from one way traffic mind as Mansfield approached their task in the manner you would expect from a side that had stretched their good run to one defeat in twenty with Saturday’s draw at Cambridge United, but City got the first goal in the tie when Bruno Manga prodded home after Logan had kept out a Sean Morrison header from a Joe Ralls corner.
When your team scores the first goal in the one hundred and twenty fourth minute of a cup tie, you could be forgiven for thinking that it might prove decisive, but, not a bit of it I’m afraid as Mansfield capitalised on some lax defending within little more than a minute to level again through top scorer Danny Rose.
There may have been less than 6,000 in a ground that will always be known as Field Mill by me, but the large majority got right behind the home team after that and I’m sure that they must have been thinking that the watching Pep Guardiola could well be bringing his team back there in less than two weeks time for what I’m sure would be seen as one of the great days in their club’s history.
However, three quarter of the way into things, it seems that changes were made which enabled City to finally shake off their dogged opponents. Neil Warnock talked after the game about asking at half time for more intensity from his forwards and he also made what, in hindsight, looks a key alteration as Hoilett was pushed into a more central position with Pilkington moving to the flanks.
The nature of the two goals midway through the second period which, to all intents and purposes, settled the tie in our favour was very similar and I feel they said something about playing to what I believe are our strengths going forward.
Our manager often talks of how he likes to play with wingers and wants to see crosses being played into the box. Now, I think when most people are asked what makes a good cross, they probably think in terms of a ball played in the air, rather than low to feet. I daresay that with many teams, the aerial route would represent the best chance of success, but I believe that only Callum Paterson among our players who are likely to find themselves in advanced positions in open play would say that he would prefer any cross that is played into him be aimed at his head.
By all means, get the ball in the air if we are talking about corners, free kicks and throw ins when Morrison, Bamba, Manga, Paterson et al are in there competing for balls into the box, but if we are talking about the likes of Zohore, Ward, Hoilett, Mendez-Laing, Pilkington, Feeney, Wildschut, Tomlin, Ralls etc. then the low cross has to be the preferred option surely?
This applies particularly if the cross in question is as good as the one that Paterson put in from the right which enabled Hoilett to tap in from close range to regain our lead and while the one Damour fired over from a similar position wasn’t in that class, it still caused enough havoc in the Mansfield defence for the ball to be made available for the onrushing Pilkington to sweep into the net.
City’s three goals had been scored from a collective range of about twelve yards, but their final one came via a route that is tried so often by the team, but, in my opinion anyway, seldom works.
I get the impression the main reason our goalkeepers look to kick it long towards the likes of Zohore, Ward and Mendez-Laing so often is to ensure that the ball is as far away from our goal as possible. Yes, we may win some second balls that can start attacks after our front players have competed for, and invariably lost, the original kick forward, but, more often than not, the ball ends up with our opponents as it comes back towards our goal.
However, on eighty nine minutes, the aerial ball to the forwards approach worked as Hoilett moved on to a lay off by substitute Omar Bogle and cracked home a right foot shot from just outside the penalty area. The difference this time for me was that Neil Etheridge’s target was Paterson who is good enough at competing for high balls to make the move a worthwhile option – Paterson was able to chest down to Bogle to initiate a quick burst of passing and fine finish which made our fourth one easily the best of our goals.
Beaten manager Steve Evans complained afterwards about vital decisions going against his team. Apparently, there was a foul in the build up to the first goal and Hoilett should have been red carded for a challenge which was only deemed worthy of a yellow by referee Geoff Eltringham. I’m not sure if he did, but if Evans meant that his keeper had been obstructed as the corner came in for the first goal, then, from what I saw, Mansfield had less cause for complaint than Sunderland did when arguing that our first goal should have been ruled out for the same reason on Saturday.
I’ve not seen Hoilett’s challenge, so I cannot comment on that, but I must say that it is a bit rich any manager complaining about decisions by officials when his team has been penalised just six times for fouls, compared to the opposition’s twenty, and his team had received no yellow cards compared to the four issued to the other side.
Where I do agree with the Mansfield manager though is when he says that it was like a “morgue” at Cardiff City Stadium during the first game when there was a slightly bigger crowd present than there was last night. What noise there was in Cardiff tended to come from the away supporters and, although I’m sure others won’t be too bothered about this, I find it a bit embarrassing when you contrast the attitude towards that tie (and many of our league games this season in terms of the numbers attending) with what we are likely to see in the coming days as the scramble for Man City tickets gets under way.
Finally, having added a loan signing to his squad last week in Yanic Wildschut, it may be that the arrival of a second one is imminent. Liverpool’s twenty one year old Serbian international midfielder Marko Gruji? was reported as being sought after by us and Middlesbrough, among others, yesterday and I found our manager’s response when talking after the game about Manchester City to be interesting – “hopefully, we’ll get some inside information on how Liverpool did it”, with the “it” in question being beat them last weekend!
*pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/