Cardiff 1 Norwich City 2
Championship, February 9th 2008
Disappointment to a noble soul is what cold water is to burning metal; it strengthens, tempers, intensifies, but never destroys it
Eliza Tabor 1835 - 1914
Notwithstanding Norwich's 11 match unbeaten run coming into this game, a quick glance at our remaining fixtures left the foolhardy optimists amongst us imagining that this was one of the games we would win in the quest to creep up on the front-runners and the play-off hopefuls - especially given the recent scintillating masterclass served up against a supplicant QPR. Victory today and we would have taken our seat amongst the hoi polloi in 6th position, breaching the glass ceiling for the first time this term. A defeat sees us tumbling down to 11th, and as the fixtures are being gnawed away, the pressure to step up and keep up intensifies.
Still early days, but the top 5 are making a serious attempt to put daylight between themselves and the slavering pack behind. Luckily for us, most of our main contenders also dropped points this weekend - Ipswich, Palace, Hull, Burnley and Wolves experiencing various shades of disappointment - the upshot being we are still only 2 points behind 6th placed Ipswich. So let's be 'aving ya - cheer up and look forward to a vital 3 points at Coventry on Tuesday, which will indubitably spin us right back into the mix again.
The rearranged 12 noon kick-off provided us with the worst of all possible worlds. Snarled up in the egg-shaped traffic, hundreds of fans missed the start of the game, and even those who wanted to watch the rugby would have missed the first half anyway. Everyone's a loser. Personally, I'd go back to the olden days philosophy, when we kicked off at 3 PM irrespective of what the weekend rugby patriots were up to. It would have only had a marginal effect on today's gate, which was artificially boosted anyway by over 1,000 squawking Canaries.
It soon became evident that the early start was not to the players' liking either. Cardiff were slow, sloppy, disjointed, careless and creatively bankrupt in the first half - losing out in every area of the pitch. This was a bad day at the office multiplied by 11, a shocking slap in the face after the champagne and caviar slurped up against the R's. This was thin, unappetising gruel. No excuses today either, a week's rest for most of the team, with only Championship Player of the Month Joe Ledley having experienced any hardcore international action in Wednesday's terrific Welsh demolition of Norway.
Our inactivity in the transfer/loan market was thrown into sharp relief today - a fresh face or two would have added some bite and zest to a turgid, torpid team performance. Norwich, on the other hand, looked every inch the resurgent footballing giant awoken impressively from their slumbers by manager Glenn Roeder (Norwich were marooned and seeming doomed at the bottom of the table in October). They held the advantage all over the park, but particularly in midfield, quicker, sharper and snappier in the tackle; they won all the second ball, and pushed Cardiff back into their own half on numerous occasions.
Up front a vintage performance from evergreen Dion Dublin and the electric 19 year old Chedwyn "Ched" Evans gave Loovens and Johnson a tougher than tough afternoon. Loovens, in particular, struggled badly in the first half, losing out in the aerial challenges time after time. At the back, ex-City target Gary Doherty was a colossus, snuffing out attack after attack, and snaffling up every ball launched in his direction when City stupidly decided to go Route One.
In the blue corner there were faults and frailties all over the pitch, heightened by the complete lack of width employed by the team when they took possession of the ball and ventured forward. An overall defensive flakiness enveloped the back four. There were very few overlapping runs from either McNaughton or Capaldi, everything got sucked into the maelstrom of central midfield, from which a Norwich player always seemed to emerge with the ball. Ledley was quiet, Whittingham was ineffective and McPhail and Rae both struggled to make an impact.
Further upfield, JFH was probably the Bluebirds' most potent presence, attacking the space and creating a handful of decent half-chances which on a better day would have netted him a well-earned brace. Holding off challenges from the meaty Norwich defence he put left and right footed shots just wide within minutes of each other in the second quarter.
Norwich's opening goal was a well-taken opportunist strike from the Chedmeister, and was a fitting testament to their first half dominance. City could have folded had Norwich capitalised further on their territorial advantage, and did well to claw their way back with the equalising goal - a well-worked effort which saw Ledley rob a sleepwalking Norwich rearguard and feed JFH, who, after a moment's hesitation, slipped the ball into the path of a confident Rae. Bada Bing, 1-1. Well against the run of play, but perfectly timed on 45 minutes to give the Bluebirds something of sustenance alongside the half-time Jaffas (do they actually eat oranges at half-time? And if not, why not?).
It was evident to every tactical technician on the Bob Bank that this match was threatening to veer wildly out of control, and required a change to the game plan or personnel. Given the complete lack of a midfield presence, the obvious strategic substitution would have involved the introduction of Aaron Ramsey, who had, remember, produced a titanic performance in the destruction of QPR just the other week. No such change was forthcoming from the gaffer, whose sole attempt at changing the course of the game saw (guess what!) Steve Thompson replace JFH on 80 minutes.
Cardiff did make some purposeful efforts in the second 45, but were stymied by their own lack of pace, penetration and guile. Parry had his worst game for some time - he looked leaden and flat-footed and was caught offside on far too many occasions. His one moment of magic saw him rising above the Canaries defence and drive a bullet header towards the far post, only to see keeper David Marshall make a superb one-handed save. The only other notable chance saw a rather pathetically worked free-kick charged down by the onrushing Canaries. After that, nada.
Seemingly settling for the point, the Cardiff defence dozed off calamitously on 88 minutes, allowing Welsh wonderboy Ched Evans to stride purposefully and unchallenged towards goal before firing a superlative explosive shot into the roof of the net past a bamboozled Oakes, who, in all fairness, could not have been expected to save it.
What kind of a name is Ched anyway? Whatever next? Before we know it the game will be full of Chads, Chips, Chucks, Brads, Biffs, Troys and Kippers like some cheesey episode of High Street Musical.
No shame in going down at home to one of the better footballing sides in the Championship, and whilst it complicates the endgame, it by no means derails the march towards Wembley and the Championship Play-Off Final with Bristol City (or Stoke) on May 24th!
First up though, a crucial game at the Ricoh on Tuesday, and then the small matter of an FA Cup 5th Round tie against the ever-popular Wolverhampton Wanderers, who took one hell of a pasting themselves. Some tough love will need to be handed out on the training ground on Monday morning to today's misfiring under-performing players - time is tight, and there are too many important games coming up for crucial members of this team to go AWOL. With goal difference likely to prove a hugely important factor in the determination of the play-off contenders, we are still in desperate need of a loan striker to add to the team's paltry goals scored column. Someone like Ched Bleedin' Evans!
Although if you listened to our ever cheerful manager last week, you will not be overly optimistic: "When you look at loan players, it will be about trying to find them because most have gone out now. You would be scraping the barrel."
Come on Ridsdale - surprise us...
Paul Davies © 2008.
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