Managers talk about how it is results not performances that really matter at this time of the season and, unfortunately, City got their lines mixed up yesterday as they played out a high quality 2-2 draw with top of the table Queens Park Rangers that. ultimately, threatens to ruin their automatic promotion hopes. I have heard Dave Jones say on more than one occasion that he’ll take a crap performance and a win at the business end of the season over the sort of outcome we got yesterday any day of the week and so, despite his brave and optimistic words after the game, I can’t help thinking that his overriding emotion after ninety minutes was one of deep frustration.
What needs to be said is that it is hard to be too critical of City after a game in which the players gave their all for the cause – I thought they were the better side for the majority of the game and, although the result was, arguably, right in the end, there is no doubt in my mind that, if a team deserved to win, it was Cardiff. However, despite there being so much right about City’s display, I think that there were areas where they could have done better and, in the end I reckon it was a combination of these little things (which I’ll come to later) and the fact that we were up against a very gifted individual who chose yesterday to score two great goals that cost us the three points.
It was only when I made the short walk from my house to the bus stop on my way to the game that I realised how hot it was yesterday – it was mid summer weather and I can remember thinking that the conditions would be a factor because, despite them, perhaps, wanting to play with a high intensity throughout, the temperature would ensure that a more considered approach was necessary from both sides. In the event I was proved half right because City in particular came flying out of the blocks and certainly unsettled the QPR defence at the beginning and end of the first half as they tried to run them off their feet – however, in the end, they paid for this approach in the last twenty minutes of the game when they had very little left to offer at a time when they needed some inspiration.
I’ve seen possession stats from the game which suggest that we had 57% of the ball. I find that very hard to believe because, in conditions which screamed out that possession of the ball was vitally important, we spent significant periods of either half not respecting that possession as we gave it back to QPR by knocking the ball from front to back much too quickly and inaccurately. One lovely short passing movement on the right hand side of the pitch that worked Chris Burke into a very promising position that he did not take advantage of could have put us 3-1 up and showed that we were capable of much more than the hit and hope stuff we played for a lot of the time. In fairness to our manager and the players though, the long ball game we played was succeeding in the first half as Jay Bothroyd and Craig Bellamy caused the visitors no end of problems with their chasing of balls played into the channels.
Our front two were irresistible during this time with Bothroyd, surely, ending any doubts about his commitment to the cause over the coming games, while Bellamy continued his inspired form of recent weeks which, I believe, has seen him lift the level of performance of the whole team by the example he has set. However, there were times yesterday when Bellamy’s willingness to chase everything down as he occasionally turned lost causes into promising positions had me wondering if having such a player in their midst sometimes makes his team mates think they can just knock it long in his general direction and hope he will make a poor pass into a good one through his energy and sheer determination. Even good passers like Peter Whittingham and Steve McPhail were guilty of playing these low percentage passes in the first half when they had the time and space to do something else and, ultimately, all of that chasing by our front two saw them pay the inevitable price of the searing heat as they ran out of gas when we were trying to take the lead for the third time.
As I mentioned earlier, when your front two are enjoying the sort of success ours were for the first sixty minutes, then there is certainly an argument for sticking with a long ball approach (and let’s not forget that, as is so often the case, our central midfield two were outnumbered in that area by the opposition), but, even when the temperature is fifteen degrees colder than it was yesterday, those long passes need to be hit with a bit more precision than many of ours were yesterday.
Still, I think it’s wrong to be too critical because what we showed yesterday would have been too good for most sides in the Championship. We were up against the best in this division and certainly didn’t suffer in comparison because, if Paddy Kenny hadn’t proved once again how good he is by foiling three one on one situations, we would have been comfortable winners – we can win our last three matches if we play like that and it was encouraging to see how the likes of Paul Quinn, Dekel Keinan and Steve McPhail have upped their games as the pressure has intensified.
Although Reading still can’t be entirely ruled out in terms of a top two finish, I can’t help thinking that their unimpressive draw at Leeds leaves the second promotion place down to a straight fight between us and Norwich. I’ve said before that I thought we would not be able to overtake Norwich if we were behind them with three matches to go and the nature of their last win only makes me believe that even more. However, what has changed is that, possibly for the first time, I think Norwich will be under the sort of pressure our squad has had to put up with all season. They will have a fan base that expects automatic promotion and they might not react in the same way from now on to going behind in games or being kept out by stubborn opponents - Norwich have to be favourites and, if I’m being honest, I expect them to finish second, but it’s far from over yet and at least yesterday’s results have ensured that we are guaranteed a top six finish.