If I had to pick just one moment which went to the heart of why Cardiff City were able to, if anything, beat an Ipswich Town side which had not won in their previous six games, but had also not lost in their last eight, even more convincingly than the 3-1 scoreline suggests then it came late in the match.
A ball was played down City’s right close to the touchline about forty yards from the Ipswich goal and Kenneth Zohore set off after it pursued by Ipswich’s Christophe Berra. My first thought was that Zohore would not be able to stop the ball going out for a throw in, but, as he has done on tens of occasions in the year or so since he’s been here, the Danish striker proved I was underestimating his pace and acceleration.
Zohore kept the ball in play easily and then faced up to the challenge of taking on his marker. It’s hard to describe exactly what happened next, but Berra was left sprawling on the floor as Zohore sped past him – the Ipswich player had become the latest in what is now a pretty long list of Championship central defenders who have found Zohore too hot to handle.
That one incident lasting no more than fifteen seconds was a microcosm of what went on throughout the ninety minutes – Ipswich’s defenders coming second in their confrontations with Zohore, but it was more than that, they were often second best in their encounters with other City attackers as well.
I’ll stick with Zohore for now though and, having been mildly critical of him after last weekend’s draw with Birmingham, I would argue that his response to a display which fell short of the high standards he has been setting for himself in the last few months, was to go and put on what I would say was his best performance so far for us in his next game.
Perhaps the main reason why I rate Zohore’s work yesterday afternoon as his most impressive for us up to now is because of the players he was up against. Berra is a thirty four times capped Scottish international who since moving south from Hearts in 2009, has played all of his football at this level or the one above it – he recently passed a combined total of three hundred appearances in his time with Wolves and Ipswich.
Berra always presents a big physical challenge for whoever he is marking and yesterday seemed to be not too bothered if he stopped his opponent by fair means or foul. His persistent fouling eventually earned him a yellow card, but it seemed to me, and quite a few other City fans by the sound of it, that referee James Linington gave the big centre half the benefit of the doubt on a number of occasions following a series of challenges which the official must have deemed to be robust, but fair.
I believe that for the first nine months of his time with City, Zohore may well have gone into his shell in the face of Berra’s aggression, but not any more – he appeared to relish it here and, by the end, there could be no doubt at all about who had been the victor in the battle between the two men.
However, it didn’t end there, because playing alongside Berra was one time City target, Luke Chambers who, in the ten years since he left Northampton, has played all of his football at Championship level, apart from his first season and half with Forest when they were in League One – Chambers has played over four hundred games for Forest and Ipswich combined and I make it that all but sixty four of them have been in the Championship.
Ipswich started the match with a back three that also included New Zealand international Tommy Smith who has missed much of the season through injury. However Smith has been a rock in the Ipswich defence in previous seasons making a total of nearly two hundred and forty appearances for the club, all while they have been in the Championship.
So, Ipswich came here with a vastly experienced central defensive threesome who have racked up something like eight hundred Championship appearances between them – that stat alone should be enough to tell you that none of them are mugs at this level.
It’s also worth noting that, although manager Mick McCarthy had to be right when he talked about his team being in a relegation battle after a defeat which left them only five points above the bottom three, that Ipswich’s recent away form has been very good.
Since losing at Huddersfield on 21 January, Ipswich had won at Villa and drawn at Preston, Brighton, Norwich and Barnsley, while conceding just four goals in those matches.
So, with a strong base at the back and good away form behind them, Ipswich would have been confident about getting something from yesterday’s game, especially after taking the lead early on with a Chambers header from former City loanee Tom Lawrence’s free kick.
However, even though the teams were level at 1-1 at half time, this didn’t stop McCarthy withdrawing Smith at the break as he sought to match City’s 4-4-2 after an opening forty five minutes in which the home side had been able to create enough opportunities to claim, with some justification, that they could have been a couple of goals ahead.
By the end of the match, Ipswich, who had only conceded more than two on their travels this season at Newcastle before yesterday, and had been managing to keep sides above us in the table down to one goal or less on their travels, could easily have let in double the three they did ship – they joined Preston, Rotherham and Fulham, among others, in not being able to cope with the revelation that is Kenneth Zohore.
Just as against the last two named, Zohore scored twice, with one of the goals being another to add to a litany of eye catching ones the player, who now joins the Danish Under 21 squad for the next week, has managed this season.
Yesterday’s candidate for a Zohore goal of the season award owed much to a delicious back heal from Junior Hoilett which left him in on goal, but, having provided the pass to the Canadian in the first place, City’s top scorer finished very impressively, as he appeared to give keeper Bartosz Bialkowski the “eyes” before sending him the wrong way with a left footed shot from the edge of the penalty area.
That goal put us 2-1 up, but, in a way, it was Zohore’s first that I enjoyed more. His sharp, close range finish after Sean Morrison’s header from Jazz Richards’ cross, following a quickly taken free kick by Peter Whittinhgam free kick which caught out a dozy visiting defence, was the sort of poacher’s goal he has not scored enough of.
It was a good striker’s goal which offered some hope that Zohore can develop into a great goalscorer as well as a scorer of great goals. There’ll need to be more evidence that this might be the case and, as yet, he’s not been able to dominate a defence at the top of the league in the way has done some of those a bit further down the table, but, increasingly, our centre forward is looking a highly effective and influential Championship performer who may well have enough about him to do well at higher levels than this.
However, not all of the reasons for the fact that we have, completely contrary to most of what we saw in the first half of the campaign, looked pretty potent at times going forward in the last few months can be put down to Kenneth Zohore.
Whilst the Dane gave three experienced centrebacks a torrid afternoon, Ipswich right back/right wing back Jordan Spence’s suffering had little to do with Zohore – it was Kadeem Harris who he must have been heartily sick of the sight of after ninety minutes spent largely in the winger’s slipstream.
Right from the first minute, Harris looked out to make up for his illness related absence for all but the last couple of minutes of last weekend’s match and he was the catalyst behind a fast City start which suggested that the game might not turn out to be the tight struggle that I, and quite a few others including Neil Warnock, thought it would be.
The damage the winger caused was a reason why, far from being a dour and cautious affair, the match turned into one of the better ones seen at Cardiff City Stadium this season. Harris had the beating of Spence all afternoon, but it wasn’t his long suffering marker who was the victim in Kadeem’s most effective piece of play, it was midfielder Cole Skuse who got turned inside out as the assist was provided for our third goal.
City were able to be good going forward in the first half despite me often forgetting Craig Noone was playing, such was his lack of impact. Noone improved after the break, but it was Hoilett who made up the third member of the attacking triumvirate that destroyed Ipswich.
I’ve already mentioned the backheel that provided the assist for our second goal, but there were other impressive parts to Hoilett’s game yesterday and it was an occasion where the experiment of playing him through the middle looked anything but that. Hoilett could have had a hat trick on another day, as he was unlucky to see his first half shot come back off the post and a second, placed, effort after cutting in from the right go just wide. However, he made a mess of what was his easiest chance and this rather told the story as to why he doesn’t get the goals someone of his talent should.
Even so, Hoilett’s relative lack of goals becomes less of a factor when a team is scoring them at the rate City are – it’s thirty five in the eighteen league games since we played Ipswich at Portman Road in early December.
That stat says it all about our transformation under Neil Warnock (by contrast, we scored just fourteen in the first eighteen matches played in all competitions this season) and probably the biggest achievement of Warnock’s time with us so far is how he has transformed a squad that were firing blanks into one which has been averaging just short of two goals a game for what is now getting towards half a season.
Hoilett was picked up for nothing, and, although others such as Pilkington, Whittingham, Ralls and Noone have played their part on the goalscoring front, I would argue that, essentially, it is he, Harris and Zohore who have been responsible our attacking improvement.
So, we are talking about a player who was without a club when Warnock came here and two others who were a long way down the attacking pecking order when he arrived that have played the biggest part in turning our season around. I’ve mentioned before that I view improving players at the club when they arrive is as much, if not more, of a criteria to judge a manager by as their work in the transfer market, but with our attacking trio who were so good yesterday, Neil Warnock has managed to show that he is able to pull rabbits out of the hat both in terms of transfer work and improving players.
Zohore was my Man of the Match with Harris and Hoilett not too far behind along with the almost always impressive Sol Bamba, whose speed and powers of recovery particularly stood out for me yesterday.
The three points took us one beyond our manager’s target of fifty. With Bristol City showing signs of life, Blackburn improving and Wigan looking increasingly likely to join the doomed Rotherham, it may be the third relegation place will go to a side that gets fifty points or more, but we don’t have to worry about relegation any more when we can play like we did yesterday – I don’t think getting us to fifty one points with twenty four still to be played for when you consider where we were five months ago, matches what Warnock achieved with Rotherham last year, but it is still mightily impressive.
To finish, I’d like to say a few words about a match I watched yesterday that portrayed Cardiff City in a completely different light to the one which followed a few hours later.
I’ve mentioned before that heavy defeats were inevitable for our Academy team when you consider they were often playing against players two and three years older than them. The view has been taken that the long term development of the players involved will be best served by them being tested in this way and so I suppose the proof of that pudding will be in the eating – that’s why I have tried to be understanding and sympathetic to the Under 18s since the turn of the year.
Yesterday lunchtime saw another one of those heavy defeats, but the difference this time was that the side beaten 4-0 by Birmingham at Leckwith contained a nucleus of players who have impressed recently for the Under 23s when given a chance at that level.
What disappointed me yesterday was the lack of impact made by those players with experience at the level above this one. To be fair, City were very unfortunate to fall behind in the last few minutes of a first half they had largely dominated when a simple ball over the top caught the defence square and the covering left back Alfie Bowman conceded a penalty which was put away by Odin Bailey for the visitors.
I was a long way away from the penalty incident, but it looked like the referee got his decision right to me. However, City’s luck was out again on the hour when the official ignored what looked an obvious foul on Sion Spence, only to penalise City a few seconds later on the edge of their area – Bailey this time netting from the free kick as his effort beat George Ratcliffe on his near post.
However, although they could complain about how it happened, City going 2-0 down also owed a lot to how poorly they had performed since falling behind – there was a complete lack of punch in attack and, although they had plenty of the ball, nothing was being done with it, as Birmingham were perfectly content to let us play in front of them.
A simple goal by Chisholm three minutes later and a poor one conceded from a corner late on gave the visitors what was, in the end, an easy win. I suppose coming back to a windswept Leckwith after you’ve been praised for your play in the big stadium across the road against teams containing senior players in some cases, might be a hard adjustment to make, but City were poor yesterday, with only Keenan Patten, who stuck to his guns in his sitting midfield role fairly well, doing himself justice out of those who came in from the Under 23 team.
*pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/