Just under a year ago, Malky Mackay’s Watford came to Cardiff in superb form having won seven consecutive matches in all competitions but were put to the sword in the first half hour or so by the BBC as Bellamy, Bothroyd and Chopra all scored to have us coasting at 3-0. It should have been a doddle from then on, but Watford got a goal back before half time, got another one just after the break and City then spent a very uneasy half an hour clinging on to their lead as the visitors got right on top. Winger Will Buckley hit the upright and had a goal disallowed as the Hornets swarmed all over us before a scruffy late goal by Gabor Gyepes sealed a 4-2 home win in what was hailed by many as the best game to be played at Cardiff City Stadium last season (there were those who believed Watford were the best team to visit the ground during that campaign as well).
Yesterday, ex City player Brian McDermott’s Reading came to Cardiff in superb form with six wins in seven as well as no goals conceded in three hundred and ninety five minutes and the best away defensive record in the division. This time it was MGM who were responsible for leaving the visitors 3-0 adrift after little more than half an hour as goals by Mason, Gunnarsson and Miller put us well in command. A lapse by City just before the break allowed Reading to open their account and with forty five minutes to play, the visitors would still have fancied their chances of getting something out of the match. The first half had more or less completely matched what had happened in that Watford game, but, although the final result of our first match of 2012 also ended with a win by a two goal margin, the similarities ended there because Reading never got remotely as close as Watford did to getting something out of the game.
Yes, there was a twenty minute period straight after half time where we gifted Reading possession too often, but, even during City’s weakest spell of the game, the differences between this team and last year’s Galacticos shone through. Yesterday Reading were able to get within about thirty yards of our goal, but then ran into a well organised and disciplined blue wall that was not prepared to yield an inch in their individual and collective battles with opponents who have shown in the last couple of months that they are serious top six candidates. Whereas City were hanging on for dear life at times last year, this time around the team were able to ride out their, fairly, rough spell with few alarms and from then on they reasserted their authority as only a series of fine saves by keeper Adam Federici kept the score down. So, while the City contingent in the twenty three thousand plus present left last year’s match relieved to have hung on to what had seemed an impregnable lead, those in the similar sized crowd yesterday left in great spirits having seen their team give a complete performance which showcased so many of the talents that are turning this season into anything but the period of mid table consolidation that many forecast before a ball was kicked.
Believe me or believe me not (truth be told, I never really conveyed how optimistic I felt at the time), but I was always hopeful that we could do a lot better than mid table mediocrity and my main reason for feeling like this was that it took Malky Mackay less than two months to correct the fault that Dave Jones had completely failed to rectify in his last three seasons at the club – all of a sudden, we had a proper midfield! In that Watford match, the visitors had only one of the midfield quartet that had been so instrumental in the 4-1 demolition job they did on us at Vicarage Road three weeks earlier – injury, a loan recall and a suspension meant that Cowie, Mutch and Eustace were all missing for the return match (as was left back Andrew Taylor who had returned to Middlesbrough following his loan spell), but still the virtual second string midfield were able to play through us and dominate us physically for more than half of the game.
Contrast that to yesterday, where it was noticeable how many fifty/fifty balls we won in the middle of the park and how we pressurised the Reading defenders when they were in possession. Behind the midfield four (or was it five – it was hard to tell, so fluent was much of our work in possession), the defence, once again, showed themselves to be more convincing than last year’s – Ben Turner has made a big difference and was up to his usual standard yesterday, but I thought Mark Hudson was as good if not better, Andrew Taylor gave a polished performance which saw him doing well in all aspects of modern full back play and Darcy Blake came on to a good game after a poor start.
We have become a very hard team to play against and this has been reflected in recent weeks with a series of performances where results have been ground out (curiously, apart from the win over a wretched Blackburn team, I thought our best performance in footballing terms lately was in the defeat against Middlesbrough). The, perhaps unfair, criticism has been that we lack a bit of creativity in midfield with us being over reliant on Peter Whittingham to provide the flair and passing ability that a side with promotion aspirations must possess. Yesterday though, City showed that they can string together some lovely stuff when they get the chance. Whittingham does what he wants and yesterday this included giving Reading a chance to make the second half more competitive as he gifted Jimmy Kebe (who, for all his dodgy attitude, still represented Reading’s greatest attacking threat by some distance) possession in the build up to Jobi McAnuff’s goal, but there was so much that was good about his game that this far outweighed that one error – I believe there are times when his excellence is taken for granted by some.
I thought Whittingham played as well as anyone, but I’m not going to complain about the Man of the Match award Aron Gunnarsson picked up. Half a season of watching him and I’m still not sure whether he is more effective playing in a deeper role or whether he is better getting forward, where he can make those dangerous runs and thread clever little passes through to Kenny Miller. What is becoming clear though is that we have gained a player who had, perhaps, gone a little stale at Coventry and is now showing that he a very accomplished performer at this level (it’s so easy to forget how young he still is) – while, if I don’t say much about Don Cowie it’s only because he just turned in yet another seven or eight out of ten performance which contained the usual levels of commitment, stamina and technique.
In a way though, the most interesting midfield contribution came from Joe Ralls. Like Blake, he made an ordinary start to the match, but he went on to become an increasingly influential figure and, if we could do with a bit more creativity, there was evidence that Ralls might be capable of providing it. Sometimes he can look like the youngster he is in the physical elements of the game, but in terms of thought, technique and anticipation, Ralls looks like someone with hundreds of matches at this level behind him (there were times when he was thinking too quickly for some of his team mates yesterday!).
Over more than half a season, the 2011/12 Cardiff City squad have proved themselves to be something of a surprise package, but, in truth, I’m being as condescending there as many of those who, probably unwittingly, do them down because of their perceived lack of star quality. Of course, any side that loses the likes of Burke, Chopra, Bellamy, Bothroyd, Olofinjana and, not to forget, Ramsey at this level has a major rebuilding job to do during the close season and expectation levels were bound to dip accordingly, but it would be interesting to have seen how our present squad would be rated if they were at another club in the Championship rather than one that had seen so many big name departures last summer.
Disclaimer – I should just add before finishing that all of the above may be a load of bollox because I forgot to change my reading glasses for my long distance ones before going to the match and so didn’t have a clue what was happening at the Grange End (I thought Gunnarsson had scored the first goal and Turner the second!).
*Photos taken from http://www.walesonline.co.uk/