Cardiff City 0 Middlesbrough 3: So near and yet so far
This is one of those rare occasions when it actually seems like a good idea to revisit a match preview. “Cardiff City host Middlesbrough in a banana skin of gigantic proportions. Tony Mowbray’s side recently put four goals past play-off hopefuls Hull City in their own back yard and Boro will be in the mood to spoil another party when they travel to South Wales.”
The atmosphere at the Cardiff City Stadium halfway through the first half suggested far worse than merely a spoilt party. Cautious hope and expectation had turned to sheer horror. 0-0 had become 0-3 in the one game this season in which they desperately needed to avoid defeat.
Unfortunately from Middlesbrough’s point of view, the story from a neutral perspective could only ever be about the effect of this game on Cardiff’s season. This was amplified even further by the dominance of the away side’s display – the more they scored, the more intense the focus on Dave Jones and Cardiff City’s apparent inability to cope with high-pressure situations. The final day at Hillsborough two years ago, the play-off final defeat at the hands of Blackpool just under twelve months ago and now a hideous defensive display that gifted Middlesbrough three goals in the space of twenty terrible first-half minutes.
On this evidence, Boro’s time may well come next season. Combative midfielder Richard Smallwood struck their third goal after Leroy Lita had opened the scoring inside the first three minutes, a lead which was doubled by Barry Robson. Despite not finding the scoresheet, Marvin Emnes was one of Cardiff’s chief tormentors in a display which recalled his previous visit to the Welsh capital – the Dutchman scored the only goal when Swansea visited the Cardiff City Stadium in early November. Emnes was booed off by the home support when sidling off the pitch at such a slow pace that he was booked for timewasting when substituted just after the hour mark.
By that time, Cardiff had already wasted numerous golden chances to mount an improbable comeback. First Kevin McNaughton, the club’s Player of the Season who had been one of the worst offenders in the dreadful home defence before the break, somehow screwed a close-range shot wide at the far post after Jay Bothroyd flicked on a Peter Whittingham cross. Bothroyd then found himself teed up by Craig Bellamy on his favoured left foot in a good shooting position. His shot flew wide of the post, just inches from the top corner he had found so brilliantly in Cardiff’s 2-2 draw with QPR in their last home outing.
It is also worth mentioning that Middlesbrough should have conceded a penalty with the score at 2-0 when goalscorer Robson extended an elbow to deflect a Bellamy free-kick. These are the decisions that can turn a season but the cold reality is that Cardiff did not create a clear opportunity until after the interval and recriminations will rightly centre on their poor performance rather than a refereeing oversight.
With twenty minutes remaining, Michael Chopra replaced Paul Quinn for the hosts and the television cameras zoomed in on a steadfast Dave Jones. Chopra made his mark shortly after his introduction, but as a result of a swipe at Robson rather than any inroads made into Boro’s lead. Bellamy had looked the most likely to make a breakthrough until the later stages when his attention turned to that old habit of hurling abuse at opponents and officials.
This position is new ground for Cardiff City, who have not been as close to promotion to the top flight as this for an awfully long time. Their attention may now have to turn to their mental approach to the play-offs. It is to the Cardiff fans’ credit that, despite a thoroughly disappointing afternoon, they still gave former loanee Willo Flood a warm reception on his return as a late Boro substitute. It would have been warmer still had his current side not inflicted so much damage.
And that achievement will be overlooked by many. Tony Mowbray’s men have long since sealed what became their main target – they will play Championship football next season and their committed performances towards the end of what has been a below-par campaign have been both a credit to their club and a sign of a potentially bright future. Just as they recently fired four first-half goals to effectively end Hull’s promotion chances, they showed great pride in a monumental effort on their final travels of the season.
Cardiff will probably have to travel again. It may well be that they return to the East Midlands, the scene of their play-off semi-final last year, this time to face Nottingham Forest. If so, they may well face another Middlesbrough striker – Kris Boyd, on loan at the City Ground. Attention turns to Portsmouth – and Norwich City…