Cardiff 0 West Bromwich Albion 0
Championship, April 1st 2008
Goodbye Play-Offs, Hello Big Flag (and Wembley)!
With the Bluebirds treading water in 12th place with 6 games to go, the play-offs are now officially out of the question and it is time (again) to focus on our biggest game for 81 years. Cardiff City proved tonight that they are a match for anyone in this division, standing toe-to-toe with West Brom in a fantastic, engrossing game which highlighted a quality rarely seen on Championship pitches. A draw was exactly the right result, although Cardiff may claim to have had the edge in an enthralling first half, which they dominated.
With a hint of arrogance which belied their faltering run of recent matches, "under-pressure" manager Tony Mowbray, he of the grizzled bag-of-spanners fizzog which comes with the ex-centre half territory, kept two of his striking options on the bench. With a weather eye on the weekend's other match at Wembley, West Brom clearly felt that Cardiff could be put to the sword without the dangerous pairing of Kevin Phillips and Roman Bednar.
As expected, Dave Jones rested Ramsey (we can only hope that DJ has the bottle to play our most gifted player on Sunday), replaced Whittingham with Sinclair, brought Kevin Mac in at right back, and again partnered Parry with Thompson up front.
After a couple of weeks of frantic messageboard activity and feverish fundraising, the big news of the night was that the huge flag made its debut on the Bob Bank, traversing the upper and lower areas before the match. It was a tremendous sight and a big thanks to the team responsible for designing, organising, fundraising and printing the bugger. Faceless Wembley apparatchiks and their nit-picking rules (no firearms indeed!) have deemed that it will not be allowed into the ground on Sunday, but there are plans for the flag to be flown on Wembley Way before the match.
Yet again, a miserly sub 14K crowd turned up to support the number one team in Wales, incredible given the Wembley send-off circumstances and the potentially explosive ingredients on offer tonight. In fairness to those who did appear, the atmosphere in the second half was sensational, the place was rocking to its crumbling foundations. The Boing Boing Baggies played their part, a sizeable following of 800 making a respectable racket throughout - probably the loudest set of fans we have hosted this season.
As predicted by the maestro Dave Jones, the game started off at full pelt, with Cardiff quickly establishing territorial bragging rights. We were effectively camped in their half for the first twenty five minutes, and had several decent efforts on goal. Steve Thompson provided graphic evidence as to why he was surplus to requirements at the beginning of the season and why he is a genuine liability now. Evading the offside trap, he was put clean through by Parry, and with the goal gaping and Dean Kiely transfixed like a startled rabbit, Thommo somehow manged to spoon his effort over the bar. It was a catastrophic and costly miss and surely draws a line under the Thompson era.
That glaring miss aside, all was positive from CCFC. Sinclair did everything in his power to make an impression on the right wing, winning ball after ball on the touchline and orchestrating raids down that flank, ably assisted by the excellent McNaughton. Infield, Rae and McPhail also played well, winning decent ball and passing it around with style. Ledley too, was a workhorse and covered acres of ground in the first 45. Up front, Parry was carrying Thompson to a ludicrous degree, sprinting back and forth with no genuine support. Despite their slack reputation, the West Brom defence held firm - Neil Clement and Pele in particular were excellent, and proved impermeable to the waves of Bluebird attacks.
Midway through the first half West Brom decided to make a game of it, and whilst effectively reduced to sharp counter-attacking, the penetration and ferocity of their breakaways was undeniable. With the big, bustling figure of Ishmael Miller their totemic figurehead, and the rattling support of the superb Zoltan Gera and hyperactive Jonathan Greening, they presented a formidable challenge to the Cardiff back four.
The Cardiff defence responded magnificently - Loovens and Johnson played their hearts out in a complete performance which was probably the best central defensive show of the season. By their side McNaughton and Capaldi (who has improved dramatically over the course of the season) were also solid as a rock, happy to burrow forward at every opportunity.
West Brom came close to scoring on a few occasions, a Miller shot parried wide by Encks and a Gera effort knocked away by Loovens. Enckleman played a huge part in this defensive lock-out, a massive presence in the penalty area, his authority radiated outwards from the back. It was a tightly contested 45 minutes which was played at high tempo with great style. As the first half whistle blew the first indications of trouble ahead arrived as we witnessed Parry hobbling off after clearly straining a hamstring.
It was surprising therefore to see that Thompson, not Parry, was replaced at the start of the second half, with Warren Feeney coming on to stake a claim for Wembley. Thankfully Feeney wasn't treated to the disgraceful abuse he received at the Hull game, which makes you think it was the glory hunting stubbers who were barracking the man.
Less than a couple of minutes later it became clear that Parry was unable to continue and was replaced by Whittingham, another player desperate to make an impression before Sunday. Feeney's contribution to the match was minimal - a constructive run down the left and some neat interplay with Ledley, and then minutes later he pulled up with what was clearly a hamstring injury. Last throw of the dice from Dave Jones and on comes Scimeca for the hapless Feeney.
With the potential to disintegrate into tactical disarray, maximum respect to the coach and players for steadying the ship immediately and trampling over these destabilising changes to lock together once again as a tigerish, battling, well-organised team. With no recognised striker, and six midfield players on the pitch, it was unconventional but effective. Sinclair was the furthest man forward and was ably assisted by the swift heals of Ledley, and everybody else when the attacks moved forward.
This was no defensive stand-off, Cardiff made light of the emergency restructuring and threw in a lion-hearted heroic performance in the second half to hold the line and push on when the opportunities arose. City were still pouring forward with minutes to go feeling that this was a game that could be won.
The balance of the game rocked back and forth throughout the second half, neither side able to fully wrest control. The Baggies went close two or three times - Miller hitting the woodwork with a venomous shot probably being their best effort.
Cardiff's best chance came midway through the second half when Sinclair rounded the stranded keeper and dribbled into the box before releasing the ball to Rae. By this time the penalty area was littered with WBA bodies and the danger was snuffed out. Intimidatingly, West Brom went in for the kill by throwing on Brunt, Phillips and Bednar, but in a monstrously good defensive performance the lads held firm and prevented their opponents from capping an excellent season with their 100th goal of the season.
The crowd contributed notably to a scintillating occasion, and roared their appreciation as the game wound down. As the volume of the chanting went up, so did the hairs on the back of the neck, and an inkling of what it will be like on Sunday just revved up the expectation factor.
With the defence and attack picking itself (subject to Parry's recovery), the only question for Sunday is who to pick in midfield. Scimeca and Sinclair both knocked off great performances today, but I'd go for Ramsey, Rae, McPhail and Ledley. Substitutes - Oakes, Purse, Scimeca (if it gets lairy), Whitts or Sinclair and Thompson (we're desperate Dan).
We proved today that we have the skill, the temperament, the defensive solidity and the boulder-like cojones to rip it up with anyone. All we need are some goals! Over to you Jimmy...
Paul Davies © 2008.
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