Firstly, a few words of caution. You don’t have to use the wide contrast in quality between our last two performances if you are looking for proof that the Championship is already living up to it’s description as the most unpredictable of divisions. The wurzels, with eight goals from the last two matches amid much talk of them having discovered a cutting edge this season, drew a blank in losing at relegation favourites Barnsley (who played the last forty minutes with ten men) and the Watford side that the Sky commentators were purring about nine days ago when they saw off Birmingham were thrashed 5-1 at Derby over the weekend.
Also, City have made a habit of turning on the style in one of their early home matches in every season since the move to Cardiff City Stadium – the second league match played at the new ground saw the team played superbly in beating Bristol City 3-0, Doncaster were demolished 4-0 in Craig Bellamy’s first debut for the club two years ago and a Joe Mason inspired home team were far too good for the wurzels in winning 3-1 last season.
So, I don’t think anyone should be claiming that we have a promotion team on the basis of Sunday’s 3-1 win over Wolves, but it cannot be denied that City were very impressive in beating a side who were sitting in fifth position in the Premiership this time last year.
No doubt the critics of Malky Mackay’s 4-5-1 system will put the transformation down to his change to a 4-4-2 formation which included two players out wide who did not tend to drift infield as their first option and there’s no denying that City looked far more of an attacking threat than they have in recent home matches. However, you also need players with the technical qualities and physical attributes to make any system work and I’m pretty sure that the ones who started the season off against Huddersfield would not have come to close to matching what we saw on Sunday if they had been set up to play the same way.
Since then City have brought in four players who all played their part in creating a situation whereby the outcome might have been the same as in our first home match, but the quality of performance was like comparing chalk and cheese.
Matt Connolly’s display at centre back was probably the most low key of the quartet of newcomers, but he was quietly effective and showed evidence of his Arsenal upbringing with some assured passing. Up front, Nicky Maynard never really had a chance to mark his City debut with a goal, but he impressed with his pace and work rate and played a big part in the second goal – the way he managed to stop a ball going out of play out on City’s left in the first half which no striker on our books last season would have been quick enough to reach offered proof of the sort of thing he will offer us.
It was the two wide midfielders who impressed most though. Actually, I’m wrong there in the case of Craig Noone, because he’s not a wide midfield player – he’s a winger! Based on this first look at him in a City shirt, he also has some of the traditional weaknesses of many who play in that position – towards the end of the match there was a tendency to try and beat one man too many and the way he blazed a shot high into the Canton Stand after Wolves keeper Ikeme had missed a cross from the right suggested that he’ll never be a prolific scorer.
However, I’m nitpicking there because the good things far, far outweighed the bad as far as Noone was concerned. Right from the start he showed he had the beating of his full back and he gave City options and qualities which they haven’t had under Malky Mackay before- there was also a thrilling fifty yard run down the middle of the pitch in the first half which ended with a shot which brought a diving save out of Ikeme (who had so much more work to do than other recent visiting keepers).
On the opposite flank Tommy Smith offered a total contrast to Noone, but, even if his contribution wasn’t as eye catching, he was just as effective. On this evidence, Smith will not be flying down the touchline leaving full backs trailing in his wake, but he can beat his marker with skill and cleverness while also being a very perceptive and accurate passer. The only slight criticism I’d make is that although he was a willing worker defensively, he wasn’t as effective as the man he replaced in stopping crosses coming in, but Smith has the forward’s instincts that Don Cowie lacks and, whatever system we play, we have been desperate for more players who can provide those from midfield.
As for the game itself, although the Palace Semi Final was a fantastic occasion and we played very well that night, it only has one real rival for the title best match seen at Cardiff City Stadium so far in 2012. Given the quality of the team we beat, I’d say the 3-1 win over Reading in January wins the award, but Sunday was very good.
Noone had already warmed Ikeme’s hands with a shot from the edge of the penalty area when new signing Bakary Sako scored for the visitors in the tenth minute. At the time my instinct was to blame David Marshall for being beaten on his near post from so far out, but, having seen the goal again on the television now, I’d say it was a superb free kick which was perfectly placed at pace beyond our keeper.
I defy anyone who was at the ground or listening to the game to say that they expected City to be in the lead within four minutes of Sako’s shot hitting the net, but that’s exactly what happened. Whether Peter Whittingham played a deliberate pass when he hooked the ball over his shoulder in the centre circle or whether he was just helping it on into a better area is unclear, but he must have known that City now possess some players capable of reaching such balls. Noone got to it first, jinked past his marker and Wolves right back Zubar committed a foul on his tormentor so obvious that even the hopeless Andy D’Urso had to give a penalty – Whittingham drilled his spot kick low into the middle of the goal as Ikeme dived to his left.
Within three minutes, Maynard showed Noone like pace to reach a ball out on the right and played it infield where a clever dummy by Mutch created the time and space for Whititngham to crack in a shot low and hard into the corner of the net. After three goals inside the first quarter of an hour, the game settled down a bit, but it was still highly watchable stuff. Wolves gave as good as they got in the first half and had sufficient chances to feel a little unlucky to be trailing 2-1 at half time, but their defence always looked to be struggling when City attacked and this trend continued throughout a more one sided second half. Whittingham had already forced a fine save from Ikeme from a free kick, but the high quality of the shooting from deal ball situations in this game was further illustrated when the City midfield man completed his hat trick by firing home from twenty five yards in the sixty fifth minute.
That goal seemed to knock the stuffing out of Wolves – City turned to the solid virtues of Gunnarsson and Cowie as they came off the bench to shore things up in midfield (this meant that with Mason coming on for Maynard, Kim Bo-Kyung was forced to wait for his City debut) they were more content to play on the counter attack – Wolves may have had more of the ball and the territorial advantage in the closing stages, but they were offering little in attack by now and it was always more likely that they would fall further behind rather than reduce the deficit.
The game finished 3-1, a scoreline that was probably just about right on the balance of play and it had been one of those satisfying matches where there was not a single weak performance from the team. This meant that there were several man of the match candidates, but there was only ever going to be one winner – it had been a pretty quiet start to the season by Peter Whittingham’s standards until this match, but the way he made scoring the second and third goals look ridiculously easy, confirmed that the man selected as the best player in the Championship last season by 4-4-2 magazine was back to his best.
Whittingham’s overall game was very good – there was the usual good passing, but there was also more than a fair share of the defensive covering and tackling seldom seen from him in his early years at the club. However, what really sets Whittingham apart, at this level anyway, is the peerless technique which ensures that supporters are not too surprised when chances like the ones he had for his second and third goals end up in the net.
The pass he received for his second goal came at him at a nice pace and he did not have to break his stride when shooting, but so many players would have snatched at it and scuffed their effort or ballooned it over the bar – Whittingham’s shot flew unerringly into the corner while barely leaving the ground. The third goal was even more impressive and reminded me of one by Jason Koumas at Leicester in 2005/06 in that it was hit from the “wrong” side for the free kick taker into the corner of the net that the keeper would have been least expecting it. Again, my first thought was to wonder about the goalkeeper’s part in the goal, but the television pictures showed he didn’t get within a yard of the ball. Ikeme had been beaten by a special player – there might be ten newcomers in the squad for 2012/13 and the early signs are that they can all play a part this season, but it still looks like Peter Whittingham will be the man who makes City tick.
*= Picture courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/