When QPR took the lead at the Cardiff City Stadium this afternoon disappointment naturally set in, but when that initial frustration subsided a different feeling set in: an excited curiosity. Plenty has been said about this Cardiff side’s start to the season, but what we haven’t yet been able to assess is the team’s bottle, i.e. how would they respond to conceding the first goal? Well, here was the opportunity. 1-0 down at home in front of an expectant crowd against a side managed by a man with an historically envious record against the Bluebirds – this was Cardiff’s biggest test of the season so far. Thankfully, Warnock’s team passed it with (almost) flying colours.
By half time Cardiff had turned a losing position into a winning one they would not let slip. In fact it should have been more comfortable but for a couple of questionably disallowed goals and a flurry of missed chances. Channel 5’s highlights package did their best to make it seem like an even contest, but aside from a few last minute anxieties, Cardiff dominated this match and deservedly made it five wins from five matches in the league this season.
After losing to Burton at home in the League Cup in midweek there were a few questions about whether that may have de-railed Cardiff’s early season momentum. It is important to note the Burton game saw 10 changes from the side that started last weekend’s win at Wolves and Warnock selected ten of the XI that started at Wolves against QPR. Nevertheless, City started nervously and there was a litany of errors – particularly through the kicking of goalkeeper Neil Etheridge – in a woeful opening first twenty minutes.
The QPR goal itself was a comedy of errors. Luke Freeman was allowed too much time and space to pick a diagonal ball toward the Rs’ juggernaut target man Matt Smith (who is about 8 foot tall and 6 foot wide). The ball itself wasn’t that threatening, just one of those floated high passes that are speculative as much as anything. Etheridge made the call to charge off his line and got nowhere near it, allowing Smith to nod the ball into an unguarded net.
Even after the goal Cardiff looked stumped against Ian Holloway’s organised side, intent on counter attacking and engaging the ‘dark arts’ that Wolves fans accused Cardiff of employing last week at Molineux. Generally I have no problem with that; every team has to find every advantage they can. As long as there are no ‘reducer’ type tackles, serious violent conduct taking place, I accept cynical play is part and parcel of the game and Cardiff under Warnock haven’t been afraid to spoil and scrap at times. However, where a team sets out to disrupt the flow of a game through persistent fouling, it does require a strong referee to stamp it out. Here the officials allowed QPR to get away with too much – especially in the first half.
It wasn’t that QPR were overly physical, but they succeeded in dragging the game into the gutter, making it a scrappy contest of loose balls and niggly fouls. Steven Caulker more or less had his arms around Kenneth Zohore for the duration of his time on the pitch; Cardiff’s frustration boiling over in the second half when Loic Damour confronted a QPR player for his manhandling in a contest for a second ball. With the exception of Furlong’s first half lunge at Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, the ref didn’t disturb the cards in his pocket to confront the Londoners’ tactics.
Cardiff overcame it though and got back in the game with a slice of good fortune: QPR goalkeeper Alex Smithies’ clearance ricocheting off Junior Hoilett into the net. A bit of luck, yes, but one that Cardiff made themselves with probably the first bit of assertive action in an attacking sense. Kenneth Zohore put the frighteners on Steve Caulker (the latest to join the list of Championship central defenders terrorised by the Dane), forcing him to pass back to his captain Nedum Onuoha, who in turn played a no-look backpass to a hurried Smithies.
In an age where players ‘respect’ former clubs it was great to see Junior Hoilett run to the corner where QPR’s fans were located, finger on his lips. That’s what the game is all about; it is further testament of how much Hoilett has really bought into Cardiff City. He is a true Bluebird these days and this was the latest in a number of fine displays from the Canada international this season. Five games and he’s been directly involved in five goals (2 goals, 3 assists); he’s becoming a regular match decider this season.
Sol Bamba headed the winner from a corner on the stroke of half-time: a fine way to celebrate signing a three-year contract this week and capping, from where I am sat, another man of the match performance. Matt Smith is a complete thorn in a defender’s side at this level. He is an ugly player, his whole game built around his strength in the air, but he is so effective at it. Smith is an example of the true beauty of football – it allows for a player like Smith to exist and be effective in the same world as a Lionel Messi. Its variety is football’s strength. Anyway, the QPR goal aside Bamba completely dominated the target man with a physically powerful performance. I told a mate midweek that Bamba is the best defender Cardiff have had in two decades – possibly ever (maybe Fred Keenor or Bill Hardy have a stronger claim). I stand by that. On his day, there isn’t a better defender in the Championship.
Cardiff should have scored more in the second half. Nathaniel Mendez-Laing almost added to his growing collection of stupendous goals, rocking the underside of the crossbar from an improbable angle; Smithies pulled off a superb close range stop from Zohore; Sean Morrison had a couple of headed chances; there were also two goals chalked off questionably. See the video below a mate sent me from his position in the ground – I’ve watched it countless times and still can’t see a foul. A contest for the ball in the penalty box, but if there is an offence it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.
The missed chances meant the inevitable late push from QPR. It was quite comical that their second half game plan seemed to largely revolve around trying (or hoping) to stay in the game and then launch long balls into the box in injury time. There were a couple of uncomfortable scrambles in the box, but City saw the game out without Etheridge required to save any goal bound effort.
It has been a fabulous first month of the season and I am disappointed to be going into an international break, worried it will stall Cardiff’s momentum. It will give the majority a couple of weeks of rest, but some like Aron Gunnarson will go away and play two full matches for Iceland in the space of 3-4 days. You wouldn’t want to be the guy to try and stop Gunnar from fulfilling his international commitments, but given the way he, in particular, plays the game, a couple of weeks rest would have been beneficial.
It is great to see a team dragging themselves off at the end of a game with sheer exhaustion. For me, the most enjoyable part of Cardiff’s start hasn’t been winning games. That is great, of course, but you can win games through good fortune. Cardiff haven’t won these games purely by luck; each game there has been a high performance level across the whole team. The work-rate, organisation and discipline every player is giving in their defensive duties always indicates a strong team spirit; the commitment and the pace with which Cardiff are attacking these days makes the team a real turn on.
It means Cardiff sit top of the league having enjoyed a historic start to the season. Here’s a mouth-watering statistic for you (courtesy of @MAPoyser on Twitter):
In the 3 points for a win era, Cardiff City become the 5th team to win the first 5 games of a 2nd tier season, the other 4 all won promotion
— Mark Poyser (@MAPoyser) August 26, 2017
Up the City! Bluebirds!
And the next fortnight can’t go fast enough.