We’d not played well in front of the television cameras for a while before last night. In fact, if you were a fan of Blackburn, Peterborough and Leicester whose only sightings of Cardiff so far this season had been the live matches against Huddersfield, Ipswich and Bolton, you could be forgiven for thinking that us being top of the league was some amazing fluke. Truth be told, I daresay supporters of about half of the twenty clubs we’ve had played before last night might well have said the same thing if you added what they had seen in our performance against their team to those televised matches. However, after last night’s comprehensive and clinical 4-1 dismantling of Blackburn at Ewood Park, they’ll know now that this Cardiff team do have something about them.
I’d mentioned in my piece for the Sheffield Wednesday that the ability to win while some way below your best is not something to be taken lightly (at a conservative guess, I’d say two thirds of managers in the Championship wish their teams had that knack), but there comes a time when any side looking to prove themselves one of the best in a competitive league like the Championship has to show that they possess that little bit more quality than most of their rivals – in a completely dominant second quarter of last night’s match in particular, City showed themselves to be able to play at a different level to a team that were amongst the favourites to win the league back in August.
That said, it cannot be denied that last night was a good time to play Blackburn – they are going through a crisis of confidence and any club which spends £8 million on a player who barely gets a kick as his side are heavily beaten at home have to have problems. Indeed, the Daily Telegraph’s reporter at the game talks about the possibility of a second consecutive relegation for the home team and mentions that we played within ourselves while comfortably collecting the three points. For me, that’s a bit harsh on Blackburn who enjoyed something of a Colin Kazim-Richards inspired revival in the game’s third quarter, but I’d also say that, overall, it was a much easier match for City than I had expected beforehand (I’d predicted a 1-1 draw).
If I was going to be critical of our display at all, it would be to say that a team as dominant as we were from about the twentieth minute onwards should have been able to point to more than one goal and a shot against the crossbar by half time to reflect this superiority in terms of a threat on our opponents goal because we were very good during that period – in fact I’ve not seen us play better this season.
Wingers (and, although they both did their fair share of defensive work, they were wingers not wide midfield players during our best spell) Craig Noone and Craig Conway both more than justified their selection on the night, but on one of those pleasing occasions when there wasn’t a poor performance from a City player, I didn’t have either of them as man of the match candidates. For me, that award went to Mark Hudson who overcame the disappointment of an early booking which meant he’ll be suspended for next Saturday’s home game with Peterborough, to not only make some excellent blocks and last ditch tackles on the fairly rare occasions when Rovers threatened, but also give Noone’s excellent cross the finish it deserved to put us ahead on the half hour mark.
If our captain was our best player (and I’d say that’s certainly an arguable decision), then I think it’s encouraging, as well as a sign of what a complete team display it was, that my other three candidates are players who have had their critics at times this season. In the case of Heidar Helguson, those critics have included myself on occasions, but I thought he was excellent last night. Tim Flowers, Sky’s guest contributor, had, obviously, been selected to give a Blackburn perspective and that’s what he did most of the time, but he was pretty complimentary about City and I reckon he was exactly right when he said Helguson had given the Blackburn centrebacks (including the highly rated Scott Dann) something of a lesson in target man play. Helguson won so many free kicks for us which stopped any momentum Blackburn might have been building in it’s tracks – when you also add in the assists he provided for our last three goals then it has to add up to his best performance in a City shirt so far.
Alongside him, Craig Bellamy had not made the impact expected of him before last night. Injuries and, possibly, off field matters meant that he had been something of a bit part player up to now, but he looked more like the Bellamy of the back end of the 2010/11 season against Blackburn. He took his goal well and his effort which cannoned back off the crossbar to round off a superb move deserved to find the net as well, because, in that one movement, he showed the pace, movement and control that can cause defences at this level so many problems over the second half of the season. Staying with Bellamy, I found his comments about the current City squad in his post match interview to be very interesting and illuminating – he was very complimentary about the spirit and unity of the squad and, although he didn’t mention them, it was hard for me to avoid the feeling that, perhaps subconsciously, he was contrasting them with the players he was with at the club two years ago.
I must admit to being surprised when I saw Don Cowie had been selected in front of an in form Aron Gunnarsson in central midfield, but his performance offered a reminder that he was playing well in that position before he picked up the injury which kept him out for almost a month. I thought Gunnarsson’s ability to make late runs into the penalty area might come in handy in what I fancied would be a tight match, but watching Cowie bursting forward to lead counter attacks late in the second half was a reminder of what he can bring to the side besides steady, competent and disciplined all round play.
Apart from, presumably, bringing Kevin McNaughton in and switching to Matt Connolly to centre back to replace the suspended Hudson, there must be a real temptation for Malky Mackay to go with the side that started last night for Peterborough. This would mean no place for Jordon Mutch or Gunnarsson. Now, perhaps they are a bit similar as players, but I reckon those two would make a first choice central midfield at most clubs in this division -I’d even say that they were good enough to start every week for a top six side. This only shows the depth in quality, if not numbers, that we now have.
Assuming they are both fit and Malky Mackay makes just the one change, the bench will, no doubt, include Joe Mason and Kim Bo-Kyung who both contributed classy late goals last night. Mason made a fool of Dann to remind those who have been a bit critical of him lately what he is capable of – with the possible exception of the injured Nicky Maynard, I still say Mason is the best finisher at the club. As for Kimbo, his crisp left footed shot for his first goal for the club revealed him to be a better finisher than some of his recent efforts (at Barnsley in particular) had suggested – his goalscoring record at his old club Cerezo Osaka during the last Japanese domestic season suggested he knew where the goal was and, hopefully, there’ll be more to follow from our South Korean international.
So, now we can have a relaxing afternoon knowing that whatever our promotion rivals get up to, we are still going to be top of the table with, at least. a five point lead over the team in third. Palace will be favourites to beat Blackpool at home, while Leicester v Barnsley looks a home banker and, if there is such a thing as an away banker then Peterborough v Middlesbrough could be it. However, in this league, you cannot take things for granted and I wouldn’t be too surprised to see Blackpool draw at Palace, while Peterborough are one of those sides who have players capable of punishing you if you underestimate them – even if those three sides win though, Watford v Hull means that at least one of the teams in the top six will finish the weekend further behind us than they began it.