Cardiff 2 Charlton Athletic 0
Championship, October 18th 2008
"80 per cent of success is showing up
Eleven games in, average league attendances hold steady at well over 18,000, we have lost less games than leaders Wolves, have the top scorer in the division and sit somewhat improbably in 4th position. One might say that Cardiff City are doing more than just showing up at the moment, team and management cocking an arrogant snook at would-be terrace tacticians, armchair pundits and keyboard worriers predicting imminent catastrophe and collapse at Ninian Park. And however shifting may be the sands upon which this unexpected success is based, it's worth taking a moment to inhale on a fat metaphorical cheroot and blow smoke rings skyward whilst gazing at the league table dreamily one more time.
It felt like a long wait for this game. The international hiatus usually provides a double whammy of despondency for the diehard City fan - the painful absence of a Bluebirds fixture usually exacerbated by the metronomic plucky failure of the national side. This time the disappointment was trumped by the Under 21s' gallant but predictable failure to best an English team they played off the park in the second leg at Villa Park, and the technicolour manifestation of the glorious talent that is Aaron Ramsey. We knew he was good, but really, did you think he was that good? His performance in both games, but particularly at Villa, were sublime - the youngest man on the pitch totally bossing the show like a true Number 10, claiming the pitch as his own, probing, prodding, sliding dream-like passes through to grinning team-mates, and topping it off with a wonder strike which nearly lifted the goal nets halfway down the M5.
Ramsey's public elevation will be to the long-term benefit of Arsenal and Wales, where he seems destined to grab hold of the midfield within months and show Jason Koumas a few things about dedication and artistry. It's a masochistic delusion, but it still hurts that he played just over twenty games for us (and only half a Cup Final!), Jones' pathological conservatism and the club's unseemly sweaty desperation to prematurely cash in their chips denying us the prospect of Ramsey rampaging through the centre of opposition midfields and knocking down opponents like ninepins as he led us to promotion this season.
Meanwhile back in the real world, Charlton arrived at Ninian Park backed up by a smallish band of quiet supporters, the team clearly determined to improve upon a grim start to the season. Manager Alan Pardew has struggled to make his mark at The Valley, after nearly two years in charge they still look poorly placed to return to the Premiership. The inevitable downsizing and restructuring that followed relegation has forced a rebuilding job which is yet to gel. Augmented by loan signings Linvoy Primus from Portsmouth and the excellent Bouazza from Fulham, Charlton's other faces today included the quality midfielder Matty Holland and highly rated Luke 'I Hate You Butler' Varney.
Up until the first goal this was an even contest which Charlton contributed to greatly. The first real chance fell to Varney, as Kevin Mc was caught out by a defence-splitting pass which left the striker in so much room he nearly fell over with the shock. He composed himself, remained on his feet, but was only able to poke a shot unconvincingly at Heaton. Both Bouazza and Holland also went close as the Addicks hit Cardiff hard in the opening 15.
After a good spell of possession though, McCormack took one more step to proving all us doubters wrong with a neatly executed finish. Whittingham hit a decent left foot shot from outside the box, which Nicky Weaver could only parry clumsily. The ball rolled invitingly into the path of McCormack (is it just me, or is he starting to look more and more like Ally McCoist with each goal he scores?), who coolly pinged the ball past Weaver, cleverly directing the shot back to where the keeper was coming from.
This was the first of many twists and turns in the game and inevitably gave the Bluebirds a rush of confidence. In a free-flowing first half, City enjoyed good possession and some decent chances, McCormack neatly nutmegging Hudson before fluffing a cross to partner Bothroyd. He also walloped one over the bar, as did McPhail with a sweetly struck left footed volley. The story of the first 45 was in many respects the battle of the number 4s, Gavin Rae earning his man of the match award with a gritty, bustling performance which eclipsed that of Charlton's tireless Bailey. Rae's grunt work provided a platform for McPhail and Whittingham to do the fancy stuff effectively, only Parry letting down the midfield quartet with another invisible under-par performance. Whittingham also impressed with his attention to defensive duties, not traditionally his forte, chasing, hustling and making some excellent tackles.
At the back, Heaton had very little to do but looked more assured between the posts. He is still too slow in distributing the ball and reluctant to use his full backs, both of whom are adept at racing up the flanks to initiate attacking moves. Purse again had a very good game, and his partnership with Johnson looks solid as a rock at the moment, another clean sheet and the third meanest defence in the division is a tribute to the back five. Aside from Kevin's early doors brain freeze, the full backs also performed well.
Satisfied customers all round at half time, optimistic Bovrils slurped enthusiastically on the BBT. Cardiff began the second half with a swagger which was soon rewarded after another controversial refereeing decision at NP. Following hard on the heels of the disallowed Coventry goal, the appropriately titled Mr Friend made a couple of key decisions which tipped the advantage clearly to the home side. Having waved away what looked like an obvious penalty when Matty Holland handled a shot from McPhail, the ref initially incurred the wrath of the crowd by blanking McCormack's appeals for a pen after he had been tripped by half-time substitute Semedo.
Analysis of the incident on TV later indicated that this was actually a pretty good decision, initial contact having been made just outside the box. "We want justice!" screamed Human Rights campaigners within earshot on the BBT, and the ref did not disappoint, pulling out the red and ending Semedo's seven minutes of action. Ross did not disappoint either, leathering the ball through the laughably constructed Charlton wall and into the back of the net, comfortably gathering up three points in the process.
Charlton's afternoon collapsed when captain Mark Hudson was dismissed for the second of two clumsy challenges which felled Bothroyd under the ref's nose. A harsh decision really, but having been at the sharp end of some diabolical refereeing over the years, Kevin Friend was merely dishing out some karma to the boys, and who are we to turn it down?
City piled forward in a bid to up their goal difference, but aside from a well-struck belter from 20+ yards from Gavin Rae, and a hopelessly mis-hit shot from the Man of the Match himself (when he really should have passed to the unmarked Bothroyd), goal scoring opportunities were limited. Comminges and Johnson came on towards the end but neither player made much of an impression in the brief time allotted.
The one troubling thing about the second half was that the Bluebirds never truly exploited the space and width available to them, fluently exchanging passes with ease, but operating within a narrow channel - reluctance to get down the flanks and behind defenders has been a feature of their performances this year, and they squandered the opportunity to put that right against the nine men of Charlton.
Ross McCormack has unequivocally arrived as the numero uno striker round these here parts and looks like the 25 goal man we have been desperately searching for, but the JayRo partnership still awaits ignition from the elegant but not exactly eagle-eyed striker Bothroyd. With few goals from the supporting cast of midfielders, Bothroyd's tally of a single goal in 9 starts is a worry. Rumours of a surprise loan signing (see below) have been strenuously denied by BBC Sport, but there will be far too much pressure on the still settling-in McCormack unless his team-mates start knocking a few in.
A point from a tricky tie against the dull and direct boys from Watford on Tuesday, before an away banker at Forest and a sure-fire home win against Blackpool will lead us neatly towards a tasty looking clash against Wolves. Win that one, and who knows?
Paul Davies © 2008.
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