A fortnight ago Wolves came to Cardiff City Stadium and had a go at City in a pretty enterprising manner only to finish the match a well beaten side. The Midlander’s have a brand new manager and a group of players who are, largely, unfamiliar with the modern Championship, but, Leeds United, managed by “Championship expert” Neil Warnock and with a squad including many who know this division inside out, were always going to be a different kettle of fish and so they proved in a dour first half in particular. Like Wolves though, they left Cardiff with nothing and, although, as is his wont, their manager put a positive spin on his team’s performance while complaining about perceived refereeing injustices, the Leeds contingent must surely concede that they were beaten by a better team on the day if they are being honest with themselves.
When a team loses 2-1 away from home with the decisive goal coming from the penalty spot, they quite often have grounds for saying “we wuz robbed”, but, although the early loss of the dangerous Ross McCormack certainly didn’t help their cause in terms of them being an attacking force, I think neutrals would have to admit that this wasn’t the case yesterday as City maintained their 100% home record after a hard fought but deserved win.
Malky Mackay remarked in his after match press conference that Leeds had played with two full backs as their wide midfield players and, although young Sam Byram left Andrew Taylor trailing in his wake once in the first half to create a half chance for sub Luke Varney, he and Aidan White on the Leeds left were more concerned with helping out their full back colleagues in nullifying the threat posed by Craig Noone and Tommy Smith than providing a service for top scorer Luciano Becchio to feed off. With the combative and effective Jamaican international Rodolph Austin helping to keep Peter Whittingham quiet as well, Leeds did a very good job in smothering City’s attacking play in the first forty five minutes and it was left to Jordon Mutch to be City’s most effective midfield performer during that time. Although sometimes sailing close to the wind with some of his tackling, Mutch was the man mainly responsible for keeping City going forward at this stage, but in truth, the only times Leeds were concerned was when an early Noone cross evaded the impressive Paddy Kenny and Heidar Helguson headed a corner just over in added time.
To be honest, the first half was pretty mediocre stuff with only Mutch, Mark Hudson (in the process of putting on a centreback masterclass in what was the best performance I’ve seen from him in a City shirt) and, to a lesser extent, ,Matt Connolly really looking the part, but the nature of the game was changed by decisions taken in the respective changing rooms at half time. In City’s case, Malky Mackay was able to get an improvement in attitude and motivation from his team which saw them seize the initiative right from the start of the second period. Perhaps this was helped by Neil Warnock’s decision to replace his left back Adam Drury with El Hadji Diouf at half time – it’s not clear whether this was an enforced or tactical substitution, but it had the effect of leaving White isolated at times on City’s right with the result that Noone was able to produce crosses which almost provided goals for Nicky Maynard and Smith before he was withdrawn for Craig Bellamy around the hour mark, while, on the other flank. Smith was finding a bit more room to create opportunities for Hudson and Helguson.
Therefore, there was a feeling that a goal was coming when Bellamy made his entrance to rapturous applause, but, while this is in no way meant a slight on Noone who, if not as effective as against Wolves, still turned in a good overall performance, the pressure on Leeds went up a few notches after that as his habit of instinctively making the right decisions gave City’s attacks a fluency that hadn’t always been there before. Of course, Bellamy’s main contribution was the free kick he arrowed into virtually the same part of the net that Peter Whittingham found to complete his hat trick against Wolves to break the deadlock with three quarters of the game played – I can still remember the thud of boot striking ball I heard when Peter King scored that stunning goal against Middlesbrough (five minutes twenty five seconds into this video) all those years ago and I heard it again yesterday when Bellamy hit that shot which left Kenny grasping thin air as it flew past him.
Having got the lead, City did not waste much time in adding to it as Maynard (who had been brought down for the free kick which led to Bellamy’s goal and increasingly frightened the Leeds defence with his pace) was fouled by Lees in the penalty area after battling to regain possession following a Kevin McNaughton pass. Whittingham put away the penalty with the minimum of fuss and then almost managed to hit the Canton Stand roof when punting the ball away in what, by his standards, was a well over the top celebration when it rebounded back to him.
At 2-0 up, there was a feeling that the game was over as a contest – Malky Mackay was able to make his “safe” substitutions when bringing on Cowie and Gunnarsson for Mutch and Maynard (it’s easy to criticise our manager for not being more adventurous with his changes, but I’m sure there aren’t too many managers around in the habit of throwing on a couple of attack minded players similar to Joe Mason and Kim Bo-Kyung when their team is 2-0 up with about a quarter of an hour left) , but Leeds had come back to grab a point after being a couple of goals down against Blackburn in their previous match and they soon reduced the deficit when Austin’s free kick from around thirty five yards out seemed to beat David Marshall for pace more than anything else.
This made for a more fraught ending to the game than had seemed likely once City had taken the lead and Leeds’ captain Peltier wasn’t far away at all with a late header, but, that apart, City were able to keep their lead intact fairly comfortably – in fact they almost added to it when Smith’s volley brought another fine save out of Kenny.
Just after our very unconvincing opening game win over Huddersfield, there was a messageboard debate about how many points we would get from our first five matches. I erred on the side of caution in saying seven (I got the outcome of our following four matches wrong in the process!) so, it goes without saying that I regard the fact we’ve managed ten as a very encouraging start. However, with two away matches to come this week, it’s interesting to note that, so far anyway, the Championship seems a much harder place to win away from home in than it has been in the past. The commentators at Charlton’s televised match with Palace on Friday remarked that the first four rounds of matches this season had only seen six away wins and, with one more match to be played, there’s only been two so far in the fifth – Millwall and Palace look like winnable matches, but so did Bristol City.