I’m grateful to my friend, and co author of The Journey Back, Richard Holt for pointing out after yesterday’s fine 2-2 draw with Manchester United at Cardiff City Stadium that, even if we lose 20-0 to Arsenal next weekend, we will not be in the bottom three going into December. With West Ham and Fulham, the two sides three points behind us, due to meet each other at Upton Park on Saturday, there is no way we can drop into the relegation places no matter what happens against Arsenal.
Sorry for labouring this point over the past few months, but I feared for us when I first saw our fixture list up to the end of November. In particular, an awfully tough first seven home matches had me thinking we’d be playing catch up on the other teams as we headed towards Christmas. Yes, our first six away games could certainly have been more testing, but what a promoted side does at home is so important to their survival hopes.
Credit to Hull for the start they’ve made to the season, but I wonder how they would be faring now if their first seven opponents at home were Manchester City, Everton, Spurs, Newcastle, Swansea, Manchester United and Arsenal and not Norwich, Cardiff, West Ham, Villa, Sunderland, Palace and Liverpool?
I expected five defeats and something like four point in those first seven home matches, but, with one more of them to come, we are guaranteed a maximum of three defeats and double the number of points as we end up with better than a point a game from the home fixtures from hell opening hand that the fixture computer dealt us. For me, this is very significant because I’d like to think that even a heavy defeat by the league leaders next week would not puncture the feeling the team must, surely, have at the moment – that is, that they have shown enough in the opening three and a half months of the season to prove that they have no need to fear anyone at Cardiff City Stadium.
It needs to be said of course, that any drop from the intensity and competitive levels that we’ve seen up to now at home in the easier looking fixtures we’ve got from next month onwards will, no doubt, see us punished – we aren’t good enough to think we can cruise to wins over the lesser lights on autopilot like some can do. However, by the same token, we’ll be fine if the ability and confidence shown yesterday can be repeated in other home games.
Make no mistake, we played well yesterday. The Manchester City victory is still just about the highlight of the season for me so far, but there were times during that game when it felt we were just about hanging on – the same can be said for the Spurs and Newcastle games and, to a lesser extent, the Everton match.
I didn’t get that feeling yesterday, we went toe to toe to with the team that is, by some distance, recognised as the most successful in the Premier League era and matched, or even bettered in some cases, them in all areas of the pitch. Now, that’s not the claim of some one eyed Cardiff fan on a high after his team has surprised him against the league champions – the match stats back that contention up, with our visitors having just one more shot both on or off target than us and possession split 50/50 (in fact I believe it very slightly favoured us).
Okay, our task would certainly have been made harder if the likes of Van Persie, Vidic and Carrick had been available for our opponents, but it’s certainly worth contrasting Man United’s 4-1 stroll at Craven Cottage in their previous away game to the examination they were given by us yesterday – there was a belief and positive approach to the team that was in stark contrast to the stuff from some of the sides around the bottom of the league that I’ve seen in recent weeks.
Given the selection and tactics used against some of the league’s lesser lights lately (I’m thinking of Villa in particular here), it was something of a surprise to hear the team Malky had selected with Mutch recalled and Odemwingie moved from the lone striker role to feature in a more attack minded midfield five in place of Gunnarsson and Bellamy and Campbell coming in to take over up front. The line up certainly looked more threatening than the one for the last game, but, by contrast, the continued involvement of Don Cowie offered the possibility of the expected conservative approach.
There I go once again, typecasting Cowie as a dogged “steady Eddie” type of a player whose sole function is to shuttle up and down the right hand side of the pitch trying to stop the opposition playing and, once again, I’m falling into the trap of underestimating someone who is under rated technically and can a show a cleverness and subtlety at times to complement his widely acknowledged stamina. That said, given that he became something of a bit part player last season, Cowie’s continued selection at this level does come as a surprise, but with Kevin Theophile-Catherine turning in another very attack minded display, I wonder if Malky sees the Scot as the most effective “safety valve” type player to operate behind the marauding full back?
All in all, I believe City’s surprising but welcome positive approach cannot be put down entirely to our somewhat depleted opponents and the fact that they led for most of the game – knowing the way Malky Mackay and his staff meticulously plan for upcoming games, I’m sure City were going to play in the manner they did no matter who was in the Manchester United side.
The surprises didn’t end there either. Half time brought a conversation about who would be brought on if we were still losing, I explained in my best know all voice that it would be Cornelius, Gunnarsson and Bellamy and then spent about half a minute or so trying to work out who on earth it was poised to come on to replace Odemwingie for our first change with twenty five minutes left. Eventually, someone said “that’s Craig Noone isn’t it?”, but I still struggled to believe that the out and out winger that had not been used all season was going to get a chance against these opponents. Noone made an impact though, paired against Chris Smalling, who always strikes me as more of a centreback than a full back, he got by his man a few times and earned two or three free kicks (the last of which proved vital in ensuring the draw).
Kimbo’s later appearance in place of the impressive Jordon Mutch was also a bit of a shock considering the South Korean had slipped down the pecking order in recent weeks, but it also showed Malky in a different light to the dour Scot mode (in tactical terms at least) that many, including myself, have been only too willing to label him with lately. You only need to look at the list of goalscorers to see that this substitution, like the Noone one, worked, but my reputation, for what it’s worth, was saved, to some degree at least, by the long awaited appearance of Andreas Cornelius.
Before I get to our multi million pound Danish striker, I should say that he may well not have got on if Fraizer Campbell had not hurt himself in making a prodigious far post leap for a header as we pressed for the equaliser in the last ten minutes. Campbell was excellent yesterday as he offered up more evidence to back up the theory that he reserves his best performances for the Sky TV cameras. Just as against Man City and Swansea, Campbell had a real impact on proceedings, not only taking his goal well and showing superb vision and technique to hit the crossbar with his chip, but also in his clever movement and anticipation – in this sort of form, Campbell for England (as mooted by Glenn Hoddle after the match) does not sound so outlandish.
As for Cornelius, he didn’t get the chance to do much, but this was a more impressive contribution than the very short one we saw against Man City. The daisy cutter from twenty five yards he hit when we didn’t cash in on a decent opportunity to win the game in the last minute didn’t show him in a good light, but the way he brushed off Fellaini and the speed he showed when running with the ball in the seconds before it did – he also looked fit and strong in his ten minutes or so on the pitch.
Finally, wasn’t our first goal a thing of beauty? David Moyes damned it with very faint praise by claiming that the players involved wouldn’t be able reproduce such quality again (seemingly the Match of the Day 2 experts thought much the same when they finally realised there were two teams on the pitch yesterday) and, who knows, maybe he is right, but we managed to do it the once Mr Moyes which is once more than your side managed in the ninety minutes! Actually, when you think about it, the goal we scored at Hull offered something similar, so let opponents and pundits keep on underestimating what we are capable of at times. Let’s be fair, most of us have been doing the same thing over the past month or so – besides providing great entertainment, yesterday’s match offered a timely reminder that we do have some fine footballers in our squad as well as a manager who is not as easy to stereotype as many would have you think.
* pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/