Cardiff 2 Sheffield Wednesday 0
Championship, December 20th 2008
"All I want for Christmas is ... 3 points at the Madejski ".
In an almost spooky and surreal counterpoint to the last home match against Preston, City recovered from a dismal first half performance to stomp all over an average contender side from the margins and record a crucial victory, consolidating their fifth place spot and extending a superb unbeaten run of six matches. The manner of the victory, the clinching penalty kick and even the names of the goal scorers echoed the Preston game, and once again City could comfortably have run out winners by four or five goals.
A healthy crowd of 17,600 decided to forego the undoubted pleasures of shopping in Cardiff - picking through the carcasses and bruised and battered survivors of Black Friday, and instead welcomed the boys back to Ninian in the last game this side of Christmas. Wednesday brought a healthy crowd of 800 or so who embarrassed the home support in the first half with a constant and tremendous vocal backing for their team, with prodigious use of the previously unheard Yuletide epic "Merry Christmas Brian Laws":
"Snow is falling, all around me, children playing having fun,
'tis the season of love and understanding, Merry Christmas, Brian Laws"
Full marks to the Wednesday-ites for the best away fan performance of the season thus far, and the best away song heard at Ninian for years - early indications are that it is already vying with Alexandre and Jeff Buckley for the top spot. No coincidence that the original was of course recorded by Cardiff boy Shakey. Once again Wednesday's most famous fan, Paul Gregory aka Tango Man, made his wobbly presence felt on the terraces (his fame now even extends to his own myspace page), braving the plummeting temperatures with another vocal topless performance.
His goading of the home fans was tolerated by the stewards for a large proportion of the game but the Ebenezer Scrooges eventually led him away in a somewhat ridiculous jobsworth's idea of crowd control. A shame for the Sheffield fans that their team could not match them with a performance of comparable enthusiasm and inspiration .
Like Preston, they were dull dull dull - intent on packing the midfield and frustrating the 'Diff at every juncture.
City, let's be honest, were equally bereft of ideas in the first 45, struggling to get a grip on the game and impose their style of play on a team that were plainly struggling. All the fluency and style of recent performances was lost in a scruffy disjointed patch of play which rapidly sucked the life out of the City fans who had come to watch their team reproduce some of the terrific football we have viewed in spurts this season.
Nobody performed well in the first half, there were shaky moments at the back, with the reliable Gyepes making a couple of horrible clunking miskicks, Kennedy being more tentative than usual. Routledge was busy down the right flank, but struggled to make significant inroads, and his combination play with McNaughton was sputtering. Parry was largely invisible again on the left, and Chopra did nothing to suggest that he is anywhere near his scintillating form of two seasons ago.
Whether this is purely down to fitness and ring-rustiness, we may never find out. A return to Wearside for Hogmanay is on the cards unless DJ can sweet-talk Ridsdale (and Niall Quinn) into committing cash money into an extended loan. Bothroyd was busy and did trouble the Wednesday defence but apart from a slick volleyed shot on the turn, there seemed little chance of a goal. The under-performing team sent a dank wave of gloom across the terraces and contributed to a morgue-like atmopsphere from the City fans.
The half-time break was greeted with relief by fans and players alike, although the players probably did not appreciate the roasting they would have surely received from Dave Jones over their half-time eggnogs and minced pies. Whatever the reasons for the transformation (and I'm not ruling out the thick fog of jazz cigarettes rolling down towards the pitch from the BBT - always a feature of the second half experience at NP), they were undoubtedly a different team in the second half.
More composed at the back, achieving dominance in the central midfield inspired by a swashbuckling Ledley performance, the team ripped into Wednesday with a previously unseen venom. The wide players were once again influential, Parry woke up and Routledge began to cause the kind of problems he only hinted at before half time. Bothroyd also upped his game, leading the line well, linking up play with the runners and coming close to a brace of goals. Chopra was more visible, even though his touch was clearly lacking - too many mis-controlled balls to make a real impact.
The breakthrough came on 49 minutes from Roger Johnson, a header down form Jay and Roger scuffed the ball goalwards - a wicked deflection from Richard Wood outwitted the hapless keeper Lee Grant who could only watch in horror as it rolled in slow motion into the net. Ninian Park exploded with festive cheer and relief, and suddenly the game was turned on its head. Cardiff started to look like a team who are challenging realistically for promotion, and the fans started behaving like we know they can - roaring the team on from all four sides of the ground, the atmosphere was spine-tinglingly good in the second half and just about made up for the zombified silence of earlier.
Duly charged up by the goal the team motored forward, Parry once again played out of his skin in the second half (can we have the full 90 minutes next time Paul?), turning left back Buxton inside out to the point where he was relying upon foul play to drag back the Cardiff winger. Cautioned on the hour he was lucky to be on the pitch by the end of the game. Cardiff's territorial superiority was overwhelming in the second half and there were a flurry of decent chances before the second killer goal went in.
Ledley burst into the box and allowed his trailing leg to be clipped by a Wednesday defender, a genuine penalty but a soft one to concede. Chopra can (usually) be relied upon to convert a penalty, and made no mistake to put the game out of sight on 65 minutes. By my reckoning that's a dozen spot kicks this season (10 converted) - an unprecedented number for the Bluebirds and a half-season tally which looks like blitzing Man City's record of 15 in 71/72.
A third goal was merited by the best move of the match but stymied by a dubious offside decision. Parry combined with Ledley who gave the ball to Bothroyd, a snap shot ricocheted off the post into the path of a grateful Chopra whose ungainly finish was enough to beat the stranded Grant but not the lineo's flag. Routledge also went close with two shots from the right, Bothroyd skimmed a beauty along the deck, and Ledley went very close with a one-on-one against the keeper who bravely parried away.
It was a grind to begin with, but City finished the match at a canter. They will have to be at their absolute best to match Reading on Boxing Day, and will have no time for forty five minutes of false starts. If they do slot into their groove early doors then there is every possibility that a shock victory could throw a curveball into the Xmas mash-up at the top of the tree. It's all about consistency at the moment - no doubting the team's ability to play slick attractive attacking football - it's their ability to maintain that high level of performance whilst holding their nerve and concentrating whilst under the cosh that is in question.
With Birmingham faltering and Wolves surely destined for an attack of altitude sickness there could be no better time to crank up the pressure with an extended unbeaten run into the New Year. Avoiding defeat at the Madejski and a couple of home victories against Plymouth and Derby and we are rocking baby!
Paul Davies © 2008.
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