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"What's that going over the hill, is it promotion?""
A profoundly depressing afternoon at Fortress Ninian, where Cardiff's recent run of 5 home victories was upset by the vaulting Mackems, who climbed into the automatic spots with a slender yet emphatic victory.
Put simply, Sunderland are on the up, Cardiff are on their uppers, and were beaten by a fitter, stronger, more purposeful and potent force.
The importance of this game to the Bluebirds was underlined by Dave Jones' decision to field a less-than-match-fit Michael Chopra and Riccy Scimeca. Chopra buzzed around with conviction, but looked half the player he has been this season. Scimeca had a forgettable match and was unable to boss the midfield as he has done so many times.
The Cardiff teamsheet, despite being buoyed up by the presence of Chops and Scimeca, was looking somewhat fragile in defence, rookie Gunter partnering out-of-position Ledley at full back with Roger The Rock Johnson keeping McNaughton company in the middle.
The midfield quartet of Parry, McPhail, Scimeca and Whittingham is the first-choice foursome, but they were bypassed in an opening half hour of torrid Sunderland pressure.
Seemingly targeting Gunter on the flanks, Sunderland swept forward in waves, but were held back by a solid defensive performance, with only one significant shot on goal in the opening 30 minutes.
After 20 minutes, Cardiff had their first proper chance, a Thompson header flying just wide from a Whittingham cross. This energised the team and the crowd, and a couple of further chances followed, Ward tipping over a dangerous shot from Ledley.
After that, the first half just kind of petered out, a stalemate of sorts had been reached, Cardiff had done the job of shutting up the travelling Mackems, and denying them the advantage their possession probably deserved.
Tables were turned in the second half. Jones had clearly imparted the less than staggering news to his team that a point today was worthless - if they were to remain serious contenders for a play-off spot a win was essential.
Heeding his advice, the Bluebirds switched on their attacking edge, and went at Sunderland with commendable vigour, but not quite enough guile.
The sizeable City crowd also responded and roared the team forward, creating a terrific big-match atmosphere. The Bluebirds were not quite able to step up an extra gear, and a sliver of half-chances were frittered away as the clock wound down in a nail-biting second half.
With the premature departures of Scimeca and Chopra, it soon became clear that today was going to be a pointless exercise. Feeney came on to a good ovation, and made some of the right moves, but was struggling to change up to the pace of the game and failed to unsettle a strong and stubborn defence, from which Thompson had equally minuscule rewards.
Sunderland have a reputation for holding on and striking late, and applied the killer blow with a super-soft free kick which a half-asleep Neil Alexander should have saved at the near post.
Jason Byrne was thrown on as Cardiff attempted to pull back the vital goal, but the change to formation never looked like piercing the Mackem defence. The past few seasons' tables suggest that a minimum of 75 points is required to secure a play-off place, and at the moment, despite the reasonable looking run-in, 4 wins out of 6 looks an agonising bridge too far.
Paul Davies © 2007
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