Middlesbrough goalkeeper Jason Steele has been a lucky lad in his sides two matches with Cardiff City this season. People go on about goals we have had disallowed for non existent fouls lately, but I still say that the worst injustice we’ve had this season was when Steele blatantly fouled Kevin McNaughton in the penalty area in the match at Cardiff City Stadium back in December and all that was given was a corner (which was the last thing it was when you consider the last touch was off our player!). There were reports after the match that a breakdown in communications between the officials was responsible for the penalty not being given despite the referee thinking that there had been a foul and Boro compounded the injustice by scoring their first goal in their 3-2 win with a deflected shot within seconds of the “foul” by Steele (who might easily have been red carded on another day).
Steele could have seen red in yesterday’s return match at the Riverside Stadium as well for a challenge on Kenny Miller after just three minutes which led to the Scottish striker going off injured shortly afterwards, but, instead, Premiership referee Kevin Friend did not even give a foul. With Boro not having a substitute keeper on the bench, they would have been in serious trouble if Friend had ordered Steele off like many thought he should have done – as it turned out though, the keeper did us something of a favour because I believe he was responsible for getting the best finisher at our club currently on to the pitch as City ended a five match run without a win with a 2-0 victory which could be seen as priceless come the end of the season.
Let me emphasise here straight away that the reason I feel grateful to the Middlesbrough keeper is not that his actions got Kenny Miller off the pitch, but that they got Joe Mason onto it. Miller may be on the longest goalscoring drought of his career, but I don’t want us to be without his experience and work rate for the run in – especially with Rudy Gestede having picked up yet another injury yesterday. This might mean that Mason and Earnie will be our only striking options for tomorrow’s match with Watford. However, in my opinion, leaving Mason out of yesterday’s starting eleven (the fit again Don Cowie returned and Darcy Blake, finally, got a call up as Kevin McNaughton was dropped for what might well be the first time in his City career) was an error – with Earnie lacking match sharpness, Mason is the Cardiff striker who carries the biggest goal threat these days.
In Malky Mackay’s defence, Mason can look the kid he is at times. The second half against Millwall was a case in point – he also can be brushed off the ball too easily on occasions and he has acknowledged that he needs more strength training, but in the first half last week, he was, arguably, our best player as his ability to find space between an opposition defence and midfield was at the heart of the all too few occasions when we looked dangerous against the Londoners in those first forty five minutes. For me, as long as he is available, Mason has to start in each of our remaining five games – with the lack of goals from our strikers recently, leaving one out who gets over 80% of his goal attempts on target (that was Mason’s rate after the Carling Cup Final at least and, I’ve not seen much since then to suggest it’s gone down significantly) seems like an act of folly to me.
Mason continued the work that Miller had started in exploiting the gaps that Boro left back Joe Bennett leaves as he spends as much time attacking as defending. Interestingly, when Bennett made a big impact last year in his first season as a regular starter in senior football, he had our current left back playing in front of him to provide the defensive cover for his bursts forward, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone there to do the job Andrew Taylor used to now and, in a dominant opening to the match, so much of City’s threat came down their right.
I mentioned Mason’s shooting accuracy earlier, but when he cut in from the right after ten minutes, his twenty five yard effort was, fractionally, off target as it bounced down off the underside of the crossbar and onto, but not over, the line. City did not have to wait long for the goal they deserved though as, from the resultant corner, Ben Turner followed up his header in the first match between the teams with his second league goal for City – this time Liam Lawrence was the corner taker and not Peter Whittingham. City had scored from the dead ball route that, in recent games, has often looked the only way they were going to find the net, but eight minutes later they managed a rare goal from open play as Whittingham put Mason in down the right again and the youngster beat Bennett twice before coolly shooting beyond Steele from eight yards out. A confident Miller or Earnshaw might have scored a goal like that and Whittingham probably would have if he still got into those sort of positions, but, currently, I’d say Mason is the only player we’ve got who could have scored that goal – as I may have mentioned once or twice recently, he has to be in the starting line up for the rest of the season!
Mason could have had another goal before half time as City brought back memories of the unforgettable FA Cup Quarter Final win of four years ago during the first half, but, with so much riding on the match, it was predictable that they would, first and foremost, look to protect their lead and that Boro would give it all they had in the second half as they threw caution to the wind. The result was that the woodwork that Mason hit earlier took something of a battering as Hammill, Jutkiewicz and Martin all struck the frame of the goal and, with David Marshall having to make some good stops as well, Boro peppered City with twenty two goal attempts – I’ve not checked this, but I’m pretty sure that’s the most our opponents have managed against us in a league match this season.
Therefore, it’s fair to that City enjoyed their share of luck yesterday, but what happened after the break shouldn’t be allowed to mask what happened before it – City turned in a good performance and rediscovered their scoring touch at the time it was most needed. The big question now is can we build on this win to secure a top six finish? Although it’s tempting fate to say such a thing in this most unpredictable of leagues, our last five games don’t look as testing as those of Brighton, Middlesbrough and Leicester (who I don’t suppose should be ruled out yet, but they can scarcely afford to drop a point from now on) and I reckon three more wins would probably get us there. However, to manage that, we really do need to rediscover the confidence we had in home matches until February. We are going to have to defend a lot better than we have done in most of our recent matches at Cardiff City Stadium and it would be an ideal time for a couple of our midfield players to rediscover their scoring form from earlier in the campaign – it’s not just Kenny Miller who’s forgotten what it’s like to score a goal.
* picture courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/