They say that the Championship is a league where there is a very fine margin between success and failure and never was that illustrated more than in our two matches with Nottingham Forest this season. Five weeks ago Forest came to Cardiff City Stadium and defended sternly in a game which had very little goalmouth action until Joe Mason headed in from a Peter Whittingham cross well into the second half. After that it was a case of City surviving a few anxious moments before the whistle blew to end a game which was nothing like as one sided as the sides respective positions in the table might have indicated.
Forest had played another five matches since then before yesterday and had failed to score a single goal in that time with a draw at Bristol City being the only time they had avoided defeat. While City’s recent results had not been great either, surely this time around they would take full advantage of Forest’s disarray and ease to a more decisive win than at the end of November? Not a chance of that I’m afraid, and, to be frank, anyone who actually believed that this was going to happen doesn’t know the nature of a league for which the word “competitive” might have been invented.
Malky Mackay responded to a three match winless run in the sort of positive manner which we have come to expect from him as the 4-5-1 formation was ditched in favour of a return to the 4-4-2 diamond system which had been favoured earlier in the season. The inclusion of three, essentially, attacking players with Rudy Gestede partnering Kenny Miller and Mason playing as the attacking tip of the midfield diamond, did not result in a return to the sort of goalscoring form we were showing in October though – indeed, a total of five goal attempts (only two of which were on target), tells it’s own story as to how the match panned out.
Indeed, with Forest dominating possession and territory, the first half was a case of all hands to the pump for City as they came under consistent pressure. However, the fact that the closest either team came to scoring was probably when Kenny Miller’s long range effort was kept out by a good save by Lee Camp just before the break, gives the clue that, rather like at Cardiff City Stadium, Forest were able to match, and sometimes better, City in the middle of the park and at the back, but, they seemed incapable of carving out decent goalscoring opportunities for themselves.
While, as mentioned earlier, City also struggled to create anything, the second half bought more examples that they carried the greater cutting edge of the two sides. Miller was off target when put through ten minutes after the break, but, shortly afterwards, he pulled wide on to Chris Gunter’s shoulder and was able to get well above the full back to bullet home a header from about twelve yards out. It almost goes without saying that the assist for the goal was provided by Peter Whittingham as Forest again found themselves defeated by a header delivered from a cross by the man who is surely City’s Player of the Season so far. Whereas Mason’s winner in the home game came from a cross from virtually on the bye line, this one came from a pass delivered about thirty yards from goal and while Miller deserved most credit for his movement and finish, the ball from Whittingham was perfectly delivered and gave him the opportunity to impart the power which helped beat Camp.
So, two very tight matches had been decided by moments of quality of a type that, on the evidence of both games, Forest just don’t possess at the moment. I say at the moment there because this time last season, Lewis McGugan was being touted as one of the best players in the division as his goals from midfield helped establish Forest as many people’s tip (myself included) for automatic promotion. McGugan fired in a couple of shots that flew only just wide as the home side huffed and puffed in their attempt to get back on terms, but the header Gestede put wide with a quarter of an hour to go (as well as one Ben Turner missed in the first half) only tended to confirm that, on the rare occasions City got forward, it was they who looked the more likely scorers.
When you consider that Forest looked well on their way to a top two finish after beating us last February and made a better fist of their Play Off Semi Final than we did, it’s strange to see them struggling so badly now. What it also does though is re-emphasise what a great job Malky Mackay has done in putting together a side that enters 2012 as genuine automatic promotion contenders as well as League Cup Semi Finalists. Yesterday offered further evidence of the stubborn, over our dead body character of a squad which has not consistently played with a sparkle and swagger that a purist would appreciate, but has made the most of it’s strengths while not allowing their weaknesses to surface too often.
Yesterday City managed to avoid a repeat of what I think is their biggest weakness (too many away draws) and, having criticised them for not matching West Ham and Middlesbrough’s away wins in my piece after the Watford match, it’s only fair that I record that City had possibly their easiest victory of the season so far at the place where the Hammers got beat yesterday while we were winning on the ground of a team that inflicted one of only two away losses for Boro this season. All in all, it was City’s best weekend in some time – Southampton suffered their first home defeat of 2011 on Friday night when Bristol City completed a very unlikely double over them, West Ham lost and Middlesbrough have to view their 1-1 home draw with Peterborough as two points lost, while Hull were also beaten at improving Burnley. Only Reading’s fourth consecutive win without conceding (1-0 at home against Ipswich) meant that it wasn’t a perfect day for City and they will provide a very stern test tomorrow when we finally get to play a home match over the holiday period before embarking on three more away games – we might have slipped up against Middlesbrough, but, overall, our record against sides in the top six at the time we play them is very good this season and there’s no reason why we can’t get revenge for what happened in May.
Finally, I’d like to wish a Happy New Year to all readers of this blog.
* – taken from http://www.walesonline.co.uk/footballnation/