It’s tough being a goalkeeper. If you make a mistake it usually leads to conceding a goal. You can spend most of a game as a spectator, but called on to make a decisive save in injury time. There’s no room for error for the man between the sticks; the margins are so fine between hero and villain. Credit then to Neil Etheridge – who has seen a fair bit of criticism already this season – for earning Cardiff a point against Derby this weekend and maintain the Bluebirds’ lead at the top of the Championship going into the second international break.
In a game where Etheridge had barely anything to do but kick away back passes or collect speculative long passes, he pulled off two stoppage time saves from David Nugent that ensure Cardiff’s unbeaten home record in the league this season remained intact. It spoke volume for the stopper’s concentration levels that he didn’t allow himself to get caught out like his team-mates did as this disappointing fixture headed towards its inevitable outcome.
Etheridge is not the perfect goalkeeper by any measure: there are issues with his kicking and on occasions his judgement has let him down this season. However, he has proven himself a very able shot stopper this season and those supporters who are quick to dish out the flack for mistakes against QPR and Preston, need to acknowledge also the important saves the Filipino has made along the way. Today, he definitely earned Cardiff the point late on.
After the euphoria of the midweek win over Leeds the whole occasion felt much flatter: grey clouds and an intermittent drizzle peppered the Cardiff City Stadium; there was the anticipated return to the sub-20K crowd; the usual vocal Canton End sounded exhausted after Tuesday’s exertions and on the pitch there was no tempo as Cardiff failed to find the same intensity they showed against Leeds, while Derby were happy to sit and make it difficult for the hosts. Despite fielding an XI that should be dominating teams at this level, Gary Rowett’s tactical vision of spoiling and seeking attacking forages on the counter hardly seems to be inspiring this Derby outfit – maybe it explains their lowly position in the table.
This day was always going to come for Cardiff, when a side decided to come to the Cardiff City Stadium dig in and make themselves difficult to beat. This is Gary Rowett’s forte and encounters against his sides in recent years have always been turgid and difficult to digest. In some way it was Cardiff being given a taste of their own medicine.
This will become the challenge for Neil Warnock’s side the longer they occupy positions near the top of the table. The Bluebirds’ strength is sucking opponents in and launching fast transitions, so it is inevitable that teams will try to nullify this by sitting deeper and instead playing their own counter-attacking game. In those circumstances Cardiff will need to find something different; surely these were exactly the scenarios Lee Tomlin was signed to make the difference in.
It will come across as churlish to level criticism at Neil Warnock with Cardiff sat top after 11 games, but if there is an area where the City boss needs to consider his approach it is substitutions.
Lee Tomlin has been used sparingly this season. He did come off the bench against Sheffield Wednesday and made an impact; it was his free kick that produced the late equaliser. Against Derby he was given 21 minutes. To his credit Tomlin wasted no time putting himself about, but on this occasion he couldn’t provide a solution for Cardiff. Yet it was evident Tomlin was needed on the pitch as early as the half hour mark as Cardiff’s midfield trio of Ralls, Damour and Bamba provided plenty of graft but not enough guile against a compact Derby. It doesn’t seem fair to give a player 21 minutes to find his way into the game and make that difference against so organised a defence.
The same goes for Danny Ward. A week ago at Sunderland he was going to start ahead of Kenneth Zohore before being struck down with illness; while it was understandable why Warnock continued with Zohore after his goal double against Leeds, when the Danish striker pulled up clutching his hamstring around the hour mark I think everyone expected Ward to join the fray. Fortunately, Zohore was able to continue but you could see he was struggling and by the end he was once again clearly working in the red, yet Ward remained an unused substitute. You wonder what the striker has to do to get a chance to prove himself at the moment – he certainly cannot do it with a few minutes here and there.
In the end you couldn’t really argue with the result, neither side really did enough to win, despite Gary Rowett’s outlandish claim his side were ‘clearly’ the better side. In a game largely bereft of quality or any sort of incisive attacking play I think both sides and sets of supporters were happy to see this one over and done with and take the point. Derby could have nicked it at the end and might have got lucky when Craig Forsyth’s mishit cross bounced off the post, but for most of the game Cardiff were the side actively trying to progress the game, without doing enough to get the breakthrough. So neither side really can claim superiority over the other.
After a mini-blip at the start of the month, Cardiff have come back well to take 7 points from the past 3 games. The Bluebirds are top of the league on merit and have played 5 of the current top 7 (recording 4 wins and 1 loss), as well as playing (to paraphrase Warnock) six of the best sides on paper in the division. While there is still a long way to go, the evidence so far is that Cardiff have enough about them in terms of resilience and quality to suggest they will at least be around the top six for the long haul.