This piece would have been a lot more negative if I had written it straight after yesterday’s 1-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday rather than doing it now, after a night to sleep on it. I came out of the match delighted with a record breaking win which took us back to the top of the table, but concerned that we had struggled so much to break down what I considered to be very limited opponents who showed exactly why they were where they were in the table. Less than a day earlier, I’d watched third placed Leicester play with a degree of attacking style and flair in beating Derby 4-1 that we have struggled to match this season – indeed, Derby themselves had looked a lot more fluid and threatening than we often do in beating Birmingham much more easily than the scoreline of 3-2 suggested only the previous week.
“Winning ugly”, to use the modern parlance, is definitely a virtue, but twelve hours ago, I was thinking to myself that we can’t keep on doing it every week (an exaggeration I know, but I’d say the term has applied to about half of our wins so far including the recent ones against Middlesbrough and Barnsley) and, with most of our injured players returning, I was thinking we shouldn’t have made such hard work of breaking Sheffield Wednesday down.
That seems an overharsh judgement to me now though for a few reasons. Firstly, it does not give Wednesday the credit I now feel they were due for a disciplined and determined defensive effort. True, it could be argued that they had luck on their side at times in the first half in particular when goalbound efforts got slight deflections which sent the ball wide, but I’m sure the Wednesday contingent would argue that they deserved that good fortune for closing down our attackers so quickly (for example, when a clever flick by Jordon Mutch helped create what looked like an ideal shooting opportunity for Peter Whittingham from twenty yards only for a defender to put him under pressure which forced him to sky his effort well over the bar).
So, if I was underestimating our opponents, I’d say now that I was doing the same with regard to our attacking play. In recent weeks I’ve talked about how we were in danger of relying solely on our aerial threat when it came to trying to find the net, but it was good to see us trying to take free kicks quickly and working some different types of corners rather than just lump the ball in there (Wednesday were a tall side with a couple of giant centrebacks and a big keeper and they coped well with the high balls we launched into their penalty area). I thought we tried to work our way to their byeline by playing a bit more football than we’ve been doing in recent weeks – this approach succeeded to some extent because we were able to get in behind their full backs at times and, if we didn’t get any tangible rewards for this, it had a lot to do with good defending by those in central areas.
That said, it has to be admitted that our finishing was substandard at times. With his goals for the Development side, there have been calls for Etien Velikonja to be given his chance recently and people have been going on about our need to sign a goalscorer in January, but my response to this until recently was to say that any side averaging two goals a game doesn’t really need a new striker as a priority. However, if our goals have not exactly dried up, seven in five matches since that extraordinary match at Charlton does suggest that I might have to review that opinion.
Although people who only watch us play at home must wonder how he’s managed to score eight times given the lack of chances that come his way at Cardiff City Stadium, that’s not a bad return for Heidar Helguson, but he made a right mess of a very presentable chance courtesy of Craig Bellamy’s low cross in the second half when our policy of trying to get in down the flanks worked perfectly. As for Rudy Gestede, I often defend him on messageboards where he has a lot of critics, but it was a shocking miss from that close range header on just about the only occasion when an aerial approach for us worked (tellingly, the towering Martin Taylor was off the pitch receiving treatment at the time). Going back to my earlier comparison with Leicester, watching the way David Nugent put away his second goal on Saturday and contrasting it with the efforts by our two strikers yesterday only makes me concede that those calling for us bring in another one next month might have a point – I wonder how many Nicky Maynard would have scored by now if he had stayed fit?
That Gestede chance was created by the man who I still say is the best crosser of a ball at the club and it was great to see Craig Conway prove that there is still a role for him at Cardiff. Even before he scored, I thought he was one of our best players on the day as he showed that his recent transfer request had not effected his appetite for hard work – his chasing and tackling back on opponents was excellent and it was not his fault that we didn’t get our usual headed goal(s). With Craig Noone available again after suspension, I’m not sure Malky Mackay will want to go to Blackburn with him and Conway in a team playing 4-4-2, but, if the decision comes down solely to Kim Bo-Kyung or our matchwinner based on yesterday’s performance, then it has to be the Scot – not that I thought Kimbo had a poor game by the way.
So, Conway’s late strike ensured that the 2012/13 squad have added Cardiff City’s best ever run of home wins to their earlier record of most consecutive home wins at the start of a season. For a brief moment after Gestede’s miss I was convinced yesterday was going to be the day when the winning run came to an end, but that feeling was soon overtaken by one that a goal was coming – that’s what nine successive wins does to you and, from the way that the support stayed behind the team when things weren’t going their way, it suggests I was far from alone in feeling that way. For me, there have been definite similarities between the way teams sometimes used to wilt as we attacked the Grange End in the second half at Ninian Park and playing towards the Canton End in the second forty five minutes at Cardiff City Stadium this season.
The team seems to gain strength from playing towards that end in the second half of matches where we are losing or drawing and, by the same token, defending that end appears to gradually wear down the resolve of our opponents. Of course, there is a tendency for an away side to play for a point as any game enters it’s closing stages (especially if you are as big an underdog as Sheffield Wednesday were yesterday), but did they really need to drop as deep as they did in the quarter of an hour before we scored? It’s hardly as if we were creating chance after chance at the time.
However, when you up against a side and set of fans that have nine successive home wins behind them, it must be hard to avoid the feeling that they are going to make it ten as the pressure increases in the closing stages of the game. People are always saying that Cardiff City Stadium does not have the atmosphere that Ninian Park did, but I would say that the evidence so far this season suggests that, for now at least, defending the Canton End in the second half is more intimidating for the opposition once the crowd get going as the pressure on their goal increases than Ninian Park ever was on all but the most special of occasions.