After the disappointment of Tuesday’s draw with Barnsley when I thought I detected some promotion nerves in the Cardiff City camp for the first time, I had yesterday’s game down as another 1-1 draw, with Forest the more likely winners if there was a definite result. Forest were the form team and we were seemingly intent on proving Dave Jones right after his typically sour remarks about us limping over the line after we had stuffed his Sheffield Wednesday team 2-0 at Hillsborough last month.
I say “stuffed” there knowing full well that it wasn’t really the case, but by Cardiff City standards from after we beat Blackburn 4-1 on December 7 right through to the end of March, it was a decisive win. Since we’ve come into April, when the pressure was really on, though the two wins we’ve gained so far are both by three goal margins and, truth be told, both Blackburn and Forest could have left with much heavier defeats than that. In between times, we’ve had a draw at Watford where, curiously to my mind, we had the look of Champions elect while hardly ever looking like scoring and that late equaliser for Barnsley which, even allowing for what I considered to be a very poor last twenty minutes or so by us, was more than they deserved over the ninety minutes – so far at least, we have upped our game in the most important month of the campaign.
Just going back to that win at Sheffield Wednesday for a short while, that was the day when Hull and Watford were beaten by Forest and Barnsley respectively and then Palace were taken to the cleaners by Brighton twenty four hours later. It looked at the time as if that could be a decisive weekend, only for our defeat at Peterborough to give the rest of the chasers renewed hope, but, surely, there’s only one of them left now who can entertain thoughts of overtaking us? Watford’s 3-2 loss at London Road means we now have a goal difference advantage over them to go with a twelve point lead with four matches to play- now, four wins for them and four losses for us will mean that the situation regarding goal difference would change, but, even us veterans of the great capitulation of 08/09 cannot really see that happening can we?
Going back to yesterday’s match, footballers should never be called Darius in my opinion and so the sending off of Forest’s Darius was justified for that reason alone. Being serious, a nightmare ten minutes for Mr Henderson started when he trod on the ball with a gaping goal in front of him after David Marshall had parried Henri Lansbury’s shot. A few minutes later he went down “injured” in the City penalty area and annoyed a few of our players in doing so – I couldn’t see what happened, but the incident was responsible for things becoming a bit “tasty” after that and this culminated in the Forest striker being shown a straight red card by referee Andre Marriner for elbowing Heidar Helguson. Having now seen the incident again on television, I’m not convinced that Henderson’s actions were intentional, but, as Forest’s manager Billy Davies admitted in a post match interview which was much more realistic and calm than I expected it to be, the referee had little alternative but to dismiss his player.
Up to Henderson’s red card, Forest could argue that they were somewhat unfortunate to be trailing to what was only Heidar Helguson’s second goal at Cardiff City Stadium, but the remaining forty eight minutes or so were torture for the visitors who left grateful that they had only lost by three – it could easily have been double that amount. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Cardiff City side take more effective advantage of being up against ten men than they did yesterday. Of course, the odds are on your side when it’s eleven against ten, but the second half in particular was an object lesson in how to make a team pay for having a player red carded and it was done by playing constructive, passing, football rather than the hoofball that we, wrongly in my view, often get accused of using.
That said, I must admit that when I heard that Helguson was going to be the lone attacker in our 4-5-1, I expected two things and one of them was that we would end up playing a direct game because the veteran’s lack of mobility would give us little alternative. Therefore, the other thing I expected was another game where we were over reliant on set pieces for our goal scoring opportunities. With two of our goals coming from a free kick and then a corner, it might seem that this was the case, but, even when it was eleven against eleven, we playing some nice stuff (for example, Taylor and Bellamy were linking very effectively down the left) with Helguson, who I had given up on seeing score another goal in Cardiff colours, doing his bit in helping us show the first half fluency which has been apparent in each of our home games this month.
The introduction of Rudy Gestede often signals a switch to more of a direct game and his two goals showed the reason why, but, sticking to the Mackay mantra of doing what the opposition least wants us to, we made Forest’s weakened side chase the ball with ruthlessly efficient and, at times, stylish football which I do not believe could be bettered by any team in the Championship – even Rudy was able to contribute at times with one delightful flick with the outside of his foot to set up yet another scoring chance living in the memory.
Every player did their bit yesterday – David Marshall had little to do, but there’s an authority to his game these days which suggests he’s a player who can cope with the Premiership, Kevin McNaughton gave the ball away once in a dangerous position, but, other than that, he once again showed that he is someone who would walk into the majority of sides at this level, Ben Turner gave another performance which suggests that the bigger the occasion is, the better he plays, Andrew Taylor was his normal self and the biggest compliment I can pay Leon Barnett is that the injured Mark Hudson has not been missed at all. In midfield, Tommy Smith has shown improved form in his last two matches and, although the fact that Craig Bellamy is now into the longest scoring drought of his career (I make it nineteen matches at all levels) and it’s showing at times in his finishing, he still has so much to offer, including real quality with his free kicks and corners – something which he was never really noted for earlier in his career.
For me though, it’s our central midfield that has been mainly responsible for providing the unexpected burst of energy and vibrancy which has enabled us to put in another burst as the finishing line approaches. Three young players have performed without a hint of nerves at a time when we have shown them in the past – Jordon Mutch and Kim Bo-Kyung have attracted plenty of positive reviews in recent weeks and they both lived up to them yesterday with the latter turning in his best performance so far in my opinion. However, it also needs to be said that Aron Gunnarsson was excellent in a role which is probably a bit strange to him and his run down the right to the bye line after winning possession just inside the Forest half which culminated in a pass which Bellamy put into the side netting showcased someone displaying so many of the requirements of a modern day midfield player – I think it’s easy to under estimate Gunnarsson because he isn’t outstanding at any part of the game (except for long throws), but, certainly by Championship standards, he is very good at many of them.
So, having gone into Cardiff City Stadium expecting it to be, perhaps, a fortnight before promotion was confirmed, I came out a couple of hours later, with it, probably, going to happen in three days time. If one thing illustrates the size of the task facing Hull and Watford in trying to catch and overtake us it’s this – one result can make a huge difference at this stage of the season, but we can definitely have three poor results in our remaining matches (make that four probably) and still be playing in the Premiership next season. On the other hand, a Watford side in poor form currently cannot afford a single slip up from now on and I’m sure Hull are far more concerned about making sure of second place than getting past us – one of them might still finish higher than us I suppose, but not both of them.