Mansfield are fighting to avoid an immediate return to Division Three post-promotion but if it's goals, goals, goals, you want, this is the club to watch. They started the game in 20th place but with just one fewer goal scored than The Bluebirds but have conceded 77 at well over 2 per match average so their 37 league games before tonight have had 43 more goals than Cardiff's. It is sod's law that both games vs City were therefore 1-0 scorelines but as both were in City's favour, I'm not complaining. Being brutally honest, Mansfield gave City a battering on the pitch at their own Field Mill ground last Autumn but a Peter Thorne header somehow stole the points for City.
Since "happy" Keith Curle took over as player manager, their fortunes (and defence!) have improved, they have taken an acceptable 25 points from their previous 18 games under him - a stark contrast to the 15 points in 20 matches before his arrival With players such as the veteran Keith Welch in goals, Welsh Under 21 Captain Rhys Day at centre-half (having completed a move from Man City), a livewire in Craig Disley and striker Iyesden Christie who always seem to save his best for when he faces the Bluebirds, they were to be respected although not feared. Curle himself was completing a suspension but the way he hopelessly missed an attempt to trap a ball in front of his dugout near the end, perhaps he's not missed. Cardiff, unsurprisingly, named an unchanged side to that which brushed aside Blackpool more convincingly than the 2-1 scoreline suggests 3 days ago.
The only doubt was Steve Jenkins but his 'foot injury' on Tuesday turned out to be nothing more than severe cramp. Spencer Prior, having played his 500th league and cup appearance in midweek, tonight started his 300th league game and, never thought I'd say it, he turned in a commanding man of the match display to celebrate it, arguably his best performance in a Bluebird shirt. On a mild evening, after a glorious sunny day in front of a passionate 13,009 crowd (inclusive of 147 Mansfield fans - and was one of them introduced to me before the game, Ian Burns, really the cousin of punk heroes Stiff Little Fingers' Jake Burns??), City fans expecting to their team "shock and awe" Mansfield had to watch shooting akin to Scud missiles instead - wayward, inaccurate and missing its target.
Cardiff, although not at their best, had the chances to be 2 or 3 ahead by the interval but went in at 0-0. A very quiet opening with nothing more special than cleared crosses and an unproductive Kav corner saw its first shot on 8 minutes when Alan Mahon, outstanding in the opening period especially, trying to shoot over Welch as a ball dropped invitingly also cleared his bar by a few feet. Five minutes later, City were indebted to Neil Alexander for once racing off his line as a woeful Steve Jenkins backpass was easily intercepted by Iyesden Christie with a clear run at goal. He looked destined to open the scoring but Alexander, back in the Scottish squad, made him shoot on the edge of the area and smothered his effort with his legs.
Jenkins had a below par performance, unable to link with Ainsworth as effectively as he did on Tuesday, but his defending was reasonable enough when required. City were getting the better of the possession and territory but unable to make real headway. Alan Mahon was electric on the ball, putting over two or three fantastic crosses, and worrying The Stags every time he cut inside too as the visitors looked most vulnerable when City ran through their middle but no further chances arose until 25 minutes but it heralded a period with City, and Earnie, really should have grabbed a couple.
Firstly, Kav put Earnie clear on the left of the Family Stand goal but his snatched effort screwed across goal, moments later, Mahon cut open the Stags back line again but Earnie, on a night when his first touch was very poor but he wasn't the only one affected by a "bobbly" playing surface, failed to control and the chance went begging. On half hour, Earnie nearly did the spectacular meeting a Jenkins cross behind the strikers with an overhead bicycle kick on the edge of the area that flew past Welch's near post. Earnie's shots at this stage were literally raining in at one a minute, none were hitting the target although many in the crowd believed one effort slamming the side-netting had gone in.
The most frustrating moment came when Peter Thorne got up perfectly to nod down a far post Mahon cross into Earnie's path 6 yards out but a combination of the ball sitting up wrongly and Earnie taking a moment too long saw a glorious opening go to waste. Kav followed that up by blasting over and so did Mahon when better options were available. More frustration came as Earnie, although offside, was allowed to run on for fully 3 or 4 seconds before a linesman raised his flag. City were looking tense and anxious, in need of relaxing a little more. They were almost penalised for the inpotentency in front of goal when a Disley header on a rare Mansfield foray was tipped over at the last moment.
The resulting corner saw more panic too as City scrambled clear with a suggestion of (accidental) handball. The half finished with Earnie missing another glorious chance as he raced clear through Mansfield's central defence again but his effort was too close to Welch who blocked with his feet. For all their effort and guile and those chances created, that was City's only on-target effort of the period, not good enough really. At the interval, City had promised much but delivered little and were showing signs of worry about it.
Half-time: CITY 0 MANSFIELD 0
Cardiff opened the second half in determined fashion but their game soon fell apart again. They looked disjointed, lacked fluency and too many players were either not playing well enough (Boland's passing again killing moves as they started being one example) or not involved sufficiently, Ainsworth was looking isolated on the right. Thorney headed over from a corner, Kav was blocked but his shot could be spotted about 5 seconds before he fired and when Christie fired wide from 6 yards and were now comfortably in the game, Ninian Park was becoming restless and the tenseness of the occasion and situation was getting to a sizeable number.
All that changed with a moment of magic on 62 minutes. Rhys Day, playing well and determined to impress back in his home country, hit a long ball that was intercepted. Peter Thorne may be much maligned but his class showed as he side-stepped a challenge and played a perfect through ball to send Earnie racing clear. Earnie had to hit the target sooner or later and made no mistake burying his effort low inside the diving Welch's near post from 15 yards. It was a moment of history and Ninian went absolutely wild. Earnie somersaulted and danced in front of the Grandstand as he equalled that goalscoring record. The final 28 minutes dragged and dragged.
Mansfield rarely came close again despite using all three substitutes but with a single goal lead and never really looking like extending it, there were a lot of jitters around the place. Cardiff only came truly close once when Mahon broke clear and his shot across the 6 yard box missed by a fraction and was also nearly turned in by Spencer Prior who was superb for City. Often criticised, quite fairly too for many displays, he seemed to get a head or foot in everywhere tonight and gave 110% to the cause, leading by example. Kav was doing likewise. It was refreshing to see our bigger players make their experience count. City came close again on 73 minutes as Thorne met Ainsworth's cross with a far post volley that flew across the face of goal with Prior unable to get the vital touch almost on the goal line.
Earnie sent one final shot for the night into orbit and it probably landed in Baghdad. The final 10 minutes were awful football for the neutral but were all about City running down the clock brilliantly. Bonner replaced the tiring and quiet Ainsworth, it wasn't his night, and they kept the ball in corners and hardly let Mansfield, out of their own half. It was nail biting and we'll have to get used to it over the coming weeks but it served its purpose. The result was vital and a psychological boost and everybody there knew it as they celebrated as if they'd just witnessed the greatest football match ever at final whistle.
Crewe will - I hope! - feel pressure in a difficult away tie at Luton tomorrow. Anything less than a win and City will suddenly look favourites for automatic promotion. The points were also needed however as City have no game for 15 days by which time, all other contenders will play 2, maybe 3, matches.
City players now go to a training camp in La Manga, Spain next Tuesday (after the trivial FAW Premier Cup game at Newport is out of the way) for a combined relaxation, intensive training and team building progamme to fully charge the batteries for the closing month of the season which could And I'm off to watch Wales twice against Azerbaijan next weekend then off to Serbia Montenegro (the former Yugoslavia). Come On City, Come Wales (and come on Luton)!!
Report from Mansfield
DESPITE a brave, battling display, Mansfield Town were shot down by Robert Earnshaw's 34th goal of the season as Cardiff moved back into the promotion spots at Ninian Park tonight with a 1-0 victory.
Of all the games they had left, this looked then least likely on paper for Stags to gain precious survival points.
But they made City battle all the way before Earnshaw struck on 62 minutes.
Mansfield twice forced good saves from home keeper Neil Alexander but coudn't find that bit of luck when they needed it most.
Unchanged Stags made a confident start, getting crosses in from both flanks in the first three minutes.
But City produced the first shot of note as Alan Mahon broke into the box and sent a dipping shot over from 16 yards on seven minutes.
The Welsh side got themselves in a mess on 11 minutes when Steve Jenkins rolled a backpass short. Iyseden Christie was onto it in a flash and keeper Neil Alexander had to race out of his box and throw his body in the way of the striker's low finish.
Stags were defending comfortably though they were relieved on 24 minutes when Robert Earnshaw fired wide of the far post after being fed on the right of the box by Mahon.
The visitors replied with a run by Junior Mendes on the right. He found Liam Lawrence inside who passed up ther chance to shoot and held the ball up before cueing up Tom Curtis for a shot that sailed wide.
An ambitious overhead effort from 18 yards by Earnshaw sailed wide on the half-hour for Cardiff after a good cross by Steve Jenkins.
The City goal ace turned sharply two minutes later but was well wide with his sliced finish.
Earnshaw should have done better with two succesive chances when he was given a clear sight of the Mansfield goal.
But he put his first shot in the sidenetting and a minute later was superbly tackled by the outstanding Rhys Day sliding in as he looked set to pull the trigger.
Mahon and Peter Thorne then worked a shooting chance for Graham Kavanagh which he blazed over.
For all their huffing and puffing, City had not managed to get one effort on target.
But Stags produced their second on 41 minutes as Craig Disley rose six yards from goal to get a head onto Corden's hoisted free kick, Alexander forced to tip over.
At the other end Mahon mis-hit his volley as Adam Eaton's header floated invitingly towards him.
And Stags were endebted to Welch just before the break when Thorne put Earnshaw away down the centre and the keeper's legs denied him.
Mansfield were delighted to reach the interval on level terms without conceding.
The Bluebirds won a corner three minutes into the second half from which Kavanagh found Thorne who powered a bullet header just over the top.
Gareth Ainsworth then put in a wicked cross from the right which had Welch at full stretch to clutch at the second attempt.
Christie poked tamely into the sidenetting as Stags threatened briefly at the other end with the home crowd growing ever more restless with their team's failings.
But, with Stags starting to dominate possession, City suddenly snatched the lead on 62 minutes.
Day's attempted long pass gave away possession.And when Eaton sold himseld into a tackle on Thorne that the City man sidestepped, Thorne threaded the perfect ball through to Earnshaw who this time had the goal at his mercy and comfortably beat Welch.
The goal - a real body blow for the Stags - also saw Earnshaw equal the club's all-time League goals in one season record which had stood at 30 goals for the late Stan Richards since 1946/47 season.
Christie did get into a promising position in the six yard box but Spencer Prior produced a fine saving tackle before the Stags man could threaten.
Mansfield elected to send on Colin Larkin for the last 20 minutes in place of Mendes to raise the hopes of the 147 travelling fans in a crowd of 13,009.
City came close again on 73 minutes as Thorne met Ainsworth's cross with a far post volley that flew across the face of goal with Prior unable to get the vital touch almost on the goal line.
Kavanagh then beat Hassell to get to the by-line and cut the ball back for Earnshaw who skied it over the top.
Stags added a third striker to their front line 10 minutes from time when Craig Mitchell came on for Corden.
City also made a change with Mark Bonner coming on for Ainsworth. And he came close within six minutes, heading Kavanagh's corner just wide of the post.
Stags' final throw of the dice came on 86 when Ben Doane was replaced by Lee Wiliamson.
But City expertly killed the last few minutes and three minutes of stoppage time.
Now Stags fans face the agony of watching the other scores come in tomorrow to see where this defeat leaves them with two crucial home six-pointers ahead of them.
This game also marked the end of player-manager Keith Curle's four game ban - another boost for the club as the heat turns up.