Cardiff 3 Doncaster Rovers 0
Championship, March 7th 2009
"Don't Look Down... ".
Having disposed of Barnsley with a derisory flourish on Tuesday night, Yorkshire's fright night continued at Ninian Park today, Doncaster being seen off with an uncommon ease which became almost tedious at the end. Donny arrived boasting a terrific recent record of 5 wins in the last 6 games, the form team of the division were however given a severe talking-to by an aristocratic Cardiff performance which was total in terms of domination. Despite large chunks of possession and sporadically tidy patterns of passing, Rovers did little to give credence to their recent points tally and were crushed beneath the feet of a rampant Bluebirds team who were able to turn the gas on and off again with a chilling and mind-scrambling control.
Rovers were punchless in front of goal, and apart from taking a couple of kicks in the head and performing two welcome acrobatic saves in the second half, Dimi Dimi Dimi had little to do apart from work out what the Grange End were serenading him with for most of the second half (to the tune of Karma Chameleon "Dimi Dimi Dimi Kon-stan-top-oul-os, he swam away to Cardiff Bay-ay-ay" - repeat ad infinitum). A grim trip back oop North was on the cards for Doncaster, who departed the field a bedraggled mess.
It won't have escaped anyone's attention that the last game of the season gives the Bluebirds a chance to complete a triple whammy over our Yorkshire friends with a parting visit to Hillsborough. By that time, we may have already secured automatic promotion/cemented our spot in third place, but whichever way you slice it, and subject to the vagaries of the South Yorkshire Police, there are likely to be 5-10,000 Bluebirds travelling up the M1 to salute their team and roar them into the Premier League.
With waves of persistent drizzle sweeping across the Bob Bank and making life grim for the spectacle-wearing geek squad, City arrived to a huge ovation in front of a tidy crowd. Donny's support was impressive and vocal and in numbers they brought ten times as many fans as their country cousins the Tykes. With DJ still getting to grips with the headaches of team selection which an expanded squad brings, the latest crop of injuries to McNaughton and Burke ensured a start for Darcy Blake at right back and Whittingham at right wing, but elsewhere the team were as expected - Dimi at the back, Roger and Gabor rocking in the centre, Kennedy steady at left back, the trusted experienced midfield of Rae, Ledley and Parry, and a great relief to see Bothroyd back in partnership with Chopra up front.
Losing the toss, Cardiff attacked the Grange in the first half and were at the Rovers' throats within minutes of kick off. All evidence of recent blippery appeared to disappear into the ether as Cardiff started to pass the ball about with speed and skill, the layers of moisture giving the ball added zing as it spun across the park. Rovers struggled to keep up and were torn inside out within a hyper-active opening spell. The first goal on 10 minutes was slickly put away by Chopra, after Gavin Rae's pass had set up him up a dozen yards out. Despite the oxygen of confidence being used up by the City fans over the past few weeks, an opening goal in the first few minutes is a great tonic, settling the nerves and setting up thoughts of cricket scores, inflated goal difference and more.
Instead of using the goal as the platform to squash a clearly struggling side, City fell back and did little more than tread water and invite Donny on for an uncomfortably long spell, before realising that further goals would be required to make this safe. Cardiff again started to combine well, Rae and Ledley influential at the centre of things, and Bothroyd and Chopra both causing consternation in the Rovers ranks. Whittingham was lively and linked well with Darcy, but Parry's contribution to proceedings was poor. Many of those in the crowd were surprised that he even had a place in the starting line-up after Quincy's sensational show on Tuesday, and he did little in an insipid performance here to contradict that notion. Looking lethargic and lacking in confidence, he failed to beat the Donny right back time after time - he is currently a dead man walking and does not justify his place on the team - Quincy should start against Norwich.
Three points were effectively gathered up and tucked inside Jay Bothroyd's pocket on 29 minutes, when the returning striker took one touch of a ball on the edge of the box and volleyed spectacularly past veteran keeper Neil Sullivan. A superb goal and a reminder of the class, quality and difference the man brings to the forward line. Sadly his contribution to the game ended seven minutes later - hopefully only going off as a precautionary measure after tweaking his hamstring, again. Following Kennedy's substitution on 26 minutes for another hamstring problem, Jones did well to marshal the troops and ensure that they held on and built on what they had, whilst coping with the emergency restructuring.
Last Tuesday's man of the match Eddie J came on to a bonkers welcome and immediately began where he left off last week, linking play with the runners, holding up the ball, making dangerous runs in and around the box, and generally giving the impression of finally finding his feet in a City shirt (if that's not too much of a mixed metaphor!) and loving every minute of it.
City's grip on the game eased a little before and after half time, but whilst they surrendered territory they never really surrendered control. Already over at 2-0, the game was drop-kicked into ecstasy with a bit of a special moment on the hour, when Eddie Eddie Eddie J picked up the ball on the edge of the box, spun past a few defenders and sidefooted sensationally past a grasping keeper. The crowd went ape and Eddie, clearly hyper-ventilating with joy, raced towards the bench and was swallowed up by celebrating management and players.
Finally off the mark, finally proving that he can take quality strikes as well as put in a phenomenal shift, this was a giant Up Yours to the moaners, whingers and doubters on the terraces (and that would include just about everyone if we're honest), and a great gurning celebratory high 5 which is likely to propel him on to greater heights - easing the pain of DJ's ill-advised succession of 5 and 10 minute substitute appearances and plonking him alongside Chopra, Bothroyd and McCormack as a valued striking squad member.
Over the course of the season, I've found the reaction of the City fans to EJ to be a little disturbing - outright abuse morphed into a combination of pity, scorn and laughter - even the recent support seemed to be tinged with more than a hint of taking the mick. Happy to report though that today there was nothing but love and relief flowing down the terraces towards the man - his expression of delight was mirrored everywhere you looked.
And then it was over. Chopra hobbled off to be replaced by McCormack and City killed the game off in a way I've not seen at Ninian Park for a long time - they strangled the life out of Rovers' dwindling resistance and made a few efforts to bump up their goal difference into the bargain. The last twenty minutes was a bit of a yawn, but the quality of the play in patches was impressively complete - City look totally on top of their game at the moment and look more than ready to ramp things up as the last twelve games loom into view.
Still fairly pointless to do the math whilst there is still so much to play for, but it would not be unreasonable to suggest that if the injury worries can be wiped out with the magic sponge, Cardiff are more than capable of winning eight of the remaining twelve games - and 83 points may well be enough for second spot. And even if that rose-tinted eventuality doesn't happen and we enter the nerve-shredding world of the Play-Offs, there is no team in this division that we should fear facing.
One defeat in 16 league games is a formidable record and superior to all our rivals, we now have officially the best defence in the Championship, play the sweetest football, have an excellent goal difference and are lording it at the top of the Fair Play League to boot. Automatic promotion would be fine and dandy, but the Bluebirds have the skill, strength, resilience, experience, nous and mental toughness to outplay and battle their way through via the Play-Offs (haven't been to Wembley for ages!). Spring is sprung and things are warming up nicely.
Paul Davies © 2009.
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