If a good team is measured by how they deal with adversity, Cardiff City’s draw at Fulham on Saturday was further evidence Neil Warnock has put together a formidable outfit this season. For the second successive game the Bluebirds won points from a losing position; while it remains to be seen whether this side has the stamina and the quality of the long haul, what isn’t in doubt is that Cardiff City have a side with as much fight and character as they’ve had in years.
A fortnight ago we all revelled as Cardiff made it five wins from five league matches and deservedly sat top of the table. Further reward arrived last week when Neil Warnock scooped the Champion Manager of the Month award for August and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing was awarded the players’ equivalent.
Cardiff completed that perfect August with a win at home to Queen Park Rangers, having fallen behind for the first time in the league this season. In that match QPR struck early, capitalising on a nervous start by the Bluebirds. However, City had 75 minutes of the game to turn around the deficit and did so to seal a 2-1 win. While that result showed that Cardiff could turn a game around, on the day the Bluebirds were vastly superior to QPR and the result was rarely in doubt. It wasn’t certain how Warnock’s side would respond going behind to one of the ‘top’ sides in the division.
Fulham certainly qualify for that label. Despite a slow start to the season, the Cottagers’ last league game before the international break was a 2-0 dismantling of Ipswich Town at Portman Road (who were, like Cardiff, four wins from four matches going into that round of fixtures). Generally regarded as the most sophisticated and accomplished outfit in the league, the trip to Craven Cottage was undoubtedly Cardiff’s toughest assignment to date.
The game was largely nip and tuck, although Fulham gradually asserted their authority on the match the longer it went on, Cardiff’s discipline and organisation kept them in the game. Eventually the pressure told and Ryan Sessegnon (who scored twice against Cardiff last season in league and cup) struck in the 75th minute, pouncing on a loose ball eight yards out.
Given the apparent ‘curse’ of the manager of the month award and the fact that an injury crisis meant Fulham were without a number of first choice players – including star man Tom Cairney – and Neil Warnock’s supposed Craven Cottage hoodoo, there was a sort of inevitability about Cardiff going down to their first league defeat when the best possible chance to defeat a potential rival presented itself. However, the Bluebirds never let their heads drop and with seven minutes remaining two substitutes combined to level the match as Liam Feeney crossed for Danny Ward to head home.
Aside from the fact that not many sides will leave Craven Cottage with much to speak of this season, there were several massive ticks for Cardiff to take away from this game. The obvious one being a point gained away against an expected promotion contender – a point few would have expected at the start of the season. There was also the fact that Cardiff went toe to toe with arguably the best footballing side in the division and came out their equal. Significantly, Cardiff responded to going behind late in a game, having the character to find an equaliser when the game looked like it might be lost. It is hard to imagine that would have happened in similar circumstances last season. Finally, Warnock again demonstrated his knack to influence the game with his decisions and the fact it was two substitutes that combined to produce the goal speaks of a depth to the squad the Bluebirds lacked last season.
The importance of Danny Ward getting the goal cannot be overstated. Cardiff have been excellent this season, but the goals have come from unexpected sources. Kenneth Zohore has only scored once this season and that was on the opening day. Although the Danish striker’s all-round performances have been excellent, it hasn’t quite worked out for him in front of goal. Even if he had been scoring, Cardiff cannot be reliant only on Zohore as a match winner. This was another problem from last season that Warnock had to rectify this season, which he seemingly has.
It is to Ward’s enormous credit too that he has maintained his concentration. It has been a difficult start to the season for Ward because he’s had to make do with brief cameos from the bench; he certainly hasn’t had much scope in league matches to show what he has to offer. In his situation, sat on the bench every week, given a few minutes towards the end of games, it would be easy to lose focus or become complacent. That Ward has simply got on with it and was sharp enough to make the difference for Cardiff on the day speaks volumes for Neil Warnock’s man management skills and the fantastic team spirit at Cardiff City at the moment.
For Warnock he suddenly has a welcome conundrum to solve: does he rest Zohore for Tuesday’s trip to Preston (ahead of next weekend’s home fixture versus Sheffield Wednesday) and give a buzzing and confident Ward his first league start; or does he leave Ward chomping at the bit on the bench in the hope more time on the pitch will help Zohore end his goal drought?
Harsh on Zohore it would certainly be if he were suddenly demoted to the bench. The Dane has missed chances this season, but his general play has been phenomenal. Prior to the weekend he has given every centre back who opposed him this season a total run around, punching holes and creating the space the likes of Junior Hoilett and Mendez-Laing have exploited. It is more to Fulham’s credit than Zohore’s detriment that the City forward had a quiet afternoon on Saturday.
It’s a big month ahead for Cardiff with another five games before the next international break. Bearing that in mind it probably did the team a favour losing to Burton in the League Cup, especially with long trips to Preston and Sunderland and three home matches against sides that are expected to challenge for promotion: Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds United and Derby County.
It would be quite incredible if Cardiff managed to get through September and remain unbeaten; incredible to the point that it seems almost impossible. Or does it?
Cardiff have to fancy their chances against anybody at the Cardiff City Stadium. Sheffield Wednesday and Derby have had mixed starts to the season, while Leeds have been as impressive as Cardiff. That fixture on the 26th already looks a mouth-watering prospect. Preston isn’t traditionally a happy hunting ground for Cardiff, but Alex Rae is a new manager at Deepdale, it feels like he’s still trying to get his ideas across to a side that probably over-achieved for a few seasons under Simon Grayson. City certainly cannot do any worse there than they did last season.
Speaking of Grayson, he’s had a tough start to life at Sunderland. The Mackems are finding the Championship a tricky prospect early on and their home form should mean Neil Warnock can take his side there with confidence. But it’s a long month and with two midweek fixtures fatigue may start to take effect. It is just as conceivable that Cardiff could slip down into mid-table by the time the next internationals come around as it is they will still be sitting pretty at the top of the league.
Cardiff’s new found ‘strength in depth’ will certainly be tested to the limit between now and October 1st.