Manchester City it is then, as Cardiff City pass tricky Mansfield test.

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.

If nothing else, last night’s game must have been one of the most colourful FA Cup ties of the season so far – Bruno Manga puts us 1-0 up with his first goal of 17/18.*

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.

Even if you don’t include the goal he scored for Canada in July and the one he got in the friendly win over Livingston, this is still Junior Hoilett’s best goalscoring season of his career. The two he got last night takes him to eight for us in competitive games – here he is being congratulated after his fine second 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/

 

 

 

 

 

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Cardiff City’s best day for for some time.

I daresay every club has them, but I’ve noticed that some Cardiff City’s fans’ default reaction to any win by their side is to comment on how poor the opposition was. You would have thought that when your side has lost their last four league matches there would be some delight at stopping the rot so to speak, but, no, first things first, lets get the obligatory dig at the other team out of the way before we consider anything like that.

Now, to try to be even handed about this, I need to record that I can’t help thinking that Sunderland are doomed to relegation if they play to the standard they showed in yesterday lunchtime’s televised 4-0 defeat.

In some ways, they reminded me of a worse version of the Norwich side we beat at Cardiff City Stadium early last month. Whereas Norwich carried something of a forward threat and could be said to have deserved their 1-0 interval lead, there was a brittleness about them even when they were enjoying their best periods in the match which suggested that City could blow them away if they could just up their game a little and, once our performance went up a little bit, we duly blew the Canaries away after the break,

For their part, Sunderland threatened a few times on the counter attack in the first half, but promising situations tended to come to nothing because of wayward shooting (the BBC stats show that none of their three goal attempts were on target) and it’s revealing that when they did hit the frame of our goal midway through the second period, it was courtesy of a sliced clearance by Bruno Manga who, that moment apart, looked a lot more like his usual self.

The visitors offered some stubborn defence up to half time, but, even when we were toiling somewhat and there was a bit of understandable tension around given recent results and performances, it seemed to me that, rather like against Norwich, if we could get one, then other goals could soon follow.

So, yes, Sunderland were one of the poorer teams to have played down here this season, but let’s remember that just over a month ago they were drawing 0-0 at Molineux against “the Manchester City of the Championship”. They also inflicted the only defeat suffered in their past seven Championship matches by a Fulham team which continued their ominous climb up the league with a 1-0 win at Middlesbrough yesterday.

Therefore, like every team in the Championship, Sunderland have it in them to surprise sides that are thinking in far more ambitious terms than merely avoiding relegation like they are. We were very much having a wobble going into yesterday’s match and I foresaw a grim struggle which would be decided by a single goal either way if it didn’t end 0-0. However, the fact that we were able to not only get the win, but to also scores four times without reply in doing so, deserves more praise from the curmudgeons than “yes, but Sunderland were shite”.

Neil Warnock had remarked in his pre game press conference on Friday that training had been a lot better during the week than it had been over our dreadful holiday period. My reaction on hearing that was to think that it was exactly the sort of thing a manager of a team which had struggled as much as we had done in our previous five games would say, but, in fairness to our manager, I would add that there was evidence, even in an opening half that wasn’t easy on the eye, of a renewed purpose and drive from City.

In the minutes leading up to half time, we stepped up the pressure and Sunderland were beginning to buckle in the face of a series of corners and free kicks, but, with some good saves from Robbin Ruiter, notably from Joe Ralls and Junior Hoilett, they were able to reach the interval at 0-0.

I must admit that I thought the half time whistle couldn’t have come at a worse time for a City team that had been building up a head of steam. As our manager said after the game, we just needed a scruffy, lucky, goal from somewhere to kick start us on the road to victory and, hopefully, recovery from the nosedive which began at Bolton two days before Christmas, but I felt much the same after forty five minutes of last week’s Cup tie with Mansfield and the second period then saw our opponents enjoy the better of things as what little attacking purpose we had shown faded away.

Yes, those heady days of early season when we would come out for the second forty five minutes of most of our home games really fired up and put our opponents to the sword seemed a long way away, but, not a bit of it as it turned out – within ten minutes, we were 2-0 up against opponents that had been reduced to ten men.

As you would expect, Sunderland manager Chris Coleman put his team’s horror start to the second period down to their own failings and you could see his point as they allowed Callum Paterson to get away a shot from the edge of the penalty area which Ruiter was forced to turn aside.

The Sunderland keeper had been doing well up until then, but he then got caught in no mans land from the resultant corner as an unmarked Paterson nodded down into the ground and then into the net via the underside of the crossbar.

It was only when I saw the highlights of the game that I realised that the keeper was claiming that his weak effort in dealing with Ralls’ corner was down him to being blocked off by Nathaniel Mendez-Laing as he came out to gather. As is mentioned in the video linked to above, there wasn’t enough in the incident to merit penalising us in my book, but, with referee Andy Madley far more disposed to award free kicks against us for fouls than he was Sunderland (as evidenced by a foul count of 23-14 against us), it would have been typical of how things had been going for us if a free kick had been given to our opponents.

So, we’d had that little bit of luck that our manager had talked about. Whether we needed the other one which followed so quickly afterwards is debatable, but, what was a difficult task for Sunderland was then made that much harder as they were reduced to ten men.

I don’t like seeing players trying to get a member of an opposing team sent off, but the reaction of the City players to Didier Ndong’s tackle on Junior Hoilett was a telling one. From where I was sat some fifty yards away, it was hard to tell how bad a challenge it was, but that reaction meant that I was not surprised to see Madley show the midfielder a red card.

Once again, the highlights tend to clear things up. It looks to me as if the decision was a slightly harsh one under the terms of how the foul law is interpreted these days, but I can understand why the ref would react like he did. What I would say though is that the current interpretation of what constitutes a red card offence should really be reassessed if challenges like Ndong’s are thought to be malicious and dangerous enough to warrant dismissal. It was a slightly mistimed tackle of a type which wouldn’t have warranted a second thought when I were a lad – if the sixties and seventies were a time when the pendulum had swung too much to one side in deciding what did or didn’t merit a sending off, then I must say that it’s gone too much in the other direction now.

Sunderland’s implosion was complete when City then doubled their lead with one of their best goals of the season. It all stemmed from a Manga clearance which Hoilett (sharper yesterday than he has been for a while) took down well and then delivered a ball which, unlike virtually every one that he has been given since returning from his injury, was designed to exploit the strongest parts of Kenneth Zohore’s game.

Finally given the sort of pass he thrives on, Zohore burnt off Jake Clarke-Salter’s challenge and squared the ball into the path of a colleague who stroked it home first time with a beautifully struck left footed effort from twenty yards.

It was counter attacking football at its best and reminiscent of so much of the stuff we were playing when the Hoilett, Zohore and Mendez-Laing attacking trio were as potent as any in the division, but it wasn’t one of those three who made the fifty or sixty yards up field so quickly to be able to apply the coup de grace, it was someone who is putting in an increasingly compelling case to be our Player of the season.

Besides providing the first half’s best goal attempt and coming up with an assist for the opening goal, Joe Ralls was generally the most influential player on the pitch up to then and he continued that standard right through to the last minute – he was a clear man of the match.

There’s one of those typically daft messageboard rows occurring on the one I use whereby grown men seem to be arguing not whether Ralls is better than Wolves’ Ruben Neves, but whether someone made such a claim in the first place!

I’m going to steer clear of that and stick to what Ralls means currently to Cardiff City. Although I think Loic Damour was doing well until our recent poor spell, the truth is that, with Aron Gunnarsson a virtual spectator for the past four months, our central midfield has tended to be a one man operation for much of this season – I dread to think how we would have fared without Ralls.

Because of the way we play and our manager’s apparent preference for workhorse type players in that area of the pitch, there is a perception among some supporters that Ralls is a limited type of player – I beg to differ.

No names, no pack drill, but we have some players who would struggle to get into the side at some of the clubs in the Championship who place far more store by possession of the football than we do. However, I would argue that Joe Ralls would be just as effective in a side using that approach as he is in ours with its more direct methods – for me, Ralls is good enough to go into a midfield like, say, Fulham’s and improve it.

2-0 up against struggling opponents who were a man light, it was now that Neil Warnock decided to unleash his team’s newest recruit. While he was still some way short of his early season form, Mendez-Laing, possibly boosted by a change to the asthma medication he has been using, had performed better than in recent weeks, but winger cum striker Yanic Wildschut, who has signed on loan from Norwich for the rest of the season, couldn’t have chosen a better set of circumstances in which to make his Cardiff bow as he replaced the former Rochdale man.

Wildschut didn’t disappoint as, operating in a more central position than expected, his speed and directness caused Sunderland problems – so many of City attacks in the closing half an hour carried the threat of further goals and, invariably, the Dutchman was at the heart of them.

When the third goal came though with ten minutes left to play, it did so without Wildschut’s help as Zohore’s shot from a free kick deflected off the wall into the path of Paterson who dispatched a low foot shot from ten yards past Ruiter and into the corner of the net with a minimum of fuss. Used in central midfield yesterday, it’s still not clear in which position the Scottish international will fare best for us, but, wherever he plays, he seems to have a habit of finding space for himself in the penalty area and, with four goals for us already, it’s easy to see why he scored so many times for Hearts.

City were able to clinch their biggest win of the season so far in the closing seconds as Sunderland gave the ball away deep in their own half and Manga slid a pass through to Wildschut who crossed for fellow sub Anthony Pilkington to tap in from close range.

There’s one other factor I’d like to mention about yesterday’s heartening win before I finish with it – I’m still not sure what formation we played!

I changed my mind about four times regarding what sort of system we were playing as I alternated between three centrebacks, five at the back or five in midfield before switching back again. In the end, I settled for a 4-4-2 with Manga at right back and Jazz Richards playing in a sort of left back role which saw him doing a man marking job on USA international Lyndon Gooch. Joe Bennett was pushed forward into a left midfield role thus freeing Hoilett to play in the more advanced central role he had filled at times last season.

However, I see Wales Online are saying that Richards played in central midfield and, thinking about it again, they might be right, so my 4-4-2 might actually have been 3-5-2 – suffice it to say, I can’t remember another occasion whereby I’m still not clear what formation I saw us use nearly twenty four hours after the event!

Finally, there was good news yesterday lunchtime from the Vale training centre as well as our Under 18s achieved what I would regard as their best result of the season up to now as Trystan Jones’ second goal in two games proved to be enough to beat top of the table Crystal Palace. Also, the Under 16s were able to follow this up with a 3-2 win over their Palace counterparts with Williams, Evans and Knott getting the goals,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Out on the pitch, The kids. | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments