Record breakers limp over the line.

Actually, that’s a bit of a harsh headline because I didn’t think we were as bad as many of the messageboard critics are making us out to be, but let’s say that last night’s 2-1 win over Watford hardly qualified as us setting a new club record for consecutive home wins at the start of a season in style. Our sixth win on the trot at Cardiff City Stadium was more in the manner of the first against Huddersfield than the second and fourth against Wolves and Blackpool respectively and needed some help from the officials who assisted us along the way with a couple of red cards to our opponents and a penalty.

Looking at Watford’s away record and the number of goals scored and conceded in those matches, I expected them to play in a certain way, but I got it completely wrong. Where I expected slick attacking play there was not a great deal for City to worry about in open play and where I expected dodgy defending there was discipline, courage and no little skill. Maybe I was also influenced by the type of player the great Gianfranco Zola had been and expected his team to play in his style, but, as Malky Mackay remarked in his pre-match press conference, it often doesn’t work that way and I get the feeling that quite often managers remember their weaknesses as players and make it a priority that their teams won’t suffer from them like they did.

The cynical edge to Watford’s performance was very unlike anything you saw from Zola the player and, in the end, it cost them the game. Cassetti took out Craig Noone the first time he beat him to receive a yellow card and, although I was hardly in the best position to judge, the incident which led to Craig Bellamy’s substitution at half time (I’d be surprised if he and hamstring victim Tommy Smith will be fit for the Burnley match on Saturday) looked suspiciously like a penalty – much worse was to follow for Watford in the second half though.

Nathaniel Chalobah protests to referee Heywood after receiving a completely pointless second yellow card and City’s task becomes so much easier.*

Although there was a willingness from the start to take the game to their opponents which you don’t tend to get when we go away, the first half was like watching us at Ipswich and Forest in terms of an actual goal threat because the opposition goalkeeper had virtually nothing to do. As I mentioned earlier, Watford were pretty impressive defensively, but they didn’t have to be to keep a clean sheet in the first forty five minutes. On the other hand, the standard of defending on our part was well down to recent standards as, firstly, Hudson and Whittingham almost collided with each other to let the visitors in on goal and it needed a fine save from David Marshall (harshly criticised by some for his display at Forest I thought) to keep out Vydra’s effort.

Marshall’s best save did the team little good though as we conceded yet another goal from a dead ball situation to fall behind. Bringing Ben Turner in for Kevin McNaughton should improve us in the air defensively, but it was way too easy for Cassetti to get his head to Yeates’ corner and, although Marshall’s heroics kept the initial effort out, Hoban was able to tap in from no more than a yard. As per normal, City had all eleven players back for the corner and yet it was Watford players who got the vital touches (Jay Bothroyd’s diving and time spent on his backside whingeing to refs might not be missed, but I don’t think we’ve properly replaced him when it comes to defending corners – he used to get his head to so many of them when defending that near post) – we are not defending well individually or as a unit at present (Mark Hudson is now only one yellow card away from a suspension) and things are going to have to improve a lot in that department for the visit of a free scoring Burnley side which includes the prolific Charlie Austin in three days time.

To be fair to City, I thought they upped the tempo after the break,  putting Watford under a lot of pressure in the third quarter of the match and it was in this period that they did their best defending. City were able to work their way into threatening positions far more than in the first half and I was cursing our luck as the final pass would not find one of our players – with hindsight though, I was not giving the visitors enough credit for the number of important tackles and blocks they were putting in. Therefore, City were not getting to see the whites of Almunia’s eyes often enough and it was still the visitors who looked more capable of scoring with their isolated attacks as Hall’s effort clipped the crossbar after City made a mess of defending another corner.

Craig Noone’s header from Andrew Taylor’s excellent cross finally forced Almunia into action and from that point onwards, Watford’s goal came under a more direct threat. Whether that would have been the case or not if it had stayed eleven against eleven is arguable, but the pressure was mounting on the visitor’s goal. Perhaps it was this pressure that led to the off the ball incident which resulted in referee Heywood (who was in charge of his first Championship match) sending Pudil off on the word of his lineman after he, apparently, struck Noone in the face (although I was close to the incident, I didn’t see it because, like many other it seems, I was following the play as the ball was played down the touchline).

The lack of any real protest from the Watford player suggested the officials got that decision right and although I doubted it at the time, television pictures show that the penalty was correctly given after Hogg handled Connolly’s shot. Peter Whittingham was more accurate with his dead ball effort than he was with a few of his other ones last night as put away his seventh goal of the season to bring us level. The officials then did us another favour shortly afterwards when Chalobah brainlessly kicked the ball away after a free kick had been awarded and, having earlier been booked for a poor tackle on Whittingham, was rightly red carded.

Aron Gunnarsson’s response to being left out of the starting line up was to score the winning goal that set a new club record – with so many of the squad carrying injuries, there has to be a good chance he’ll be in from the start on Saturday.*

With around a quarter of an hour to go and a two man advantage, a City win looked inevitable and Malky Mackay made a positive substitution when he brought on Rudy Gestede for Turner. I was a little concerned that this would lead to long balls being humped forward from around the halfway line, but City got half of their task right as they kept on switching the ball to the flanks to get crosses in from better positions, but, to the immense frustration of the crowd, the likes of Taylor, Noone, Cowie and even Whittingham were very wayward with their delivery, then, as the match went into added time, we finally got a cross right (from Noone) and sub Aron Gunnarsson scored with a firm header from around the penalty spot which gave Almunia no chance.

Even with a two man advantage, City continued to struggle defensively when Watford were able to get forward and, having earlier come close when Marshall foiled Yeates, their very quick sub Anya ensured there would be a few alarms before victory was confirmed. It may not have been pretty and was not enough to regain top spot from Leicester (who beat Brighton 1-0), but the likes of Leeds, Blackpool and Wolves would all have welcomed an unconvincing 2-1 home win last night. For now, we are getting the job done at home even if it isn’t always that convincing – I’m more concerned about the fact that I keep on thinking that we wouldn’t have have won last night if the circumstances had been the same (1-1 with opponents down to nine men and fifteen minutes to go) and the match had been played at Vicarage Road.

One last thing, Vincent Tan was there again last night with a guest - Sultan Ibrahim Ismail (at least I think it was him) watched the game, whether there was any more to this than a fellow countryman taking in a match remains to be seen.

 

* – pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/

 

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