Crystal Palace 1 Cardiff City 0: Six Points of Interest
It was interesting to see on Twitter various references to Crystal Palace’s 1-0 win over Cardiff City in the League Cup semi-final first leg at Selhurst Park last night as being a poor game. Despite the lack of a fairytale ending, I found it a far more entertaining game than the previous night’s FA Cup clash between Thierry Henry and Leeds United (also featuring some other Arsenal players). Here are a few points of interest from the action in south London.
Cardiff were keen to employ the long throws of their Icelandic midfielder Aron Gunnarsson whenever possible. This seems a strange move given the lack of height in their midfield and attack. Whereas the infamous Rory Delap long throw at Stoke City can traditionally rely upon a target man in the box, Cardiff had to resort to their two centre-backs last night – Ben Turner and Mark Hudson provided the only real height in their whole side. The visitors rarely threatened from Gunnarsson’s many missiles into the box.
Goalkeeper Thomas Heaton was at fault for the only goal of the game when he came to collect a cross but got nowhere near the ball as it was flicked on. A header at the back post scored by Palace centre-back Anthony Gardner gave the hosts the victory to take into the second leg. Heaton has appeared inconsistent to the outside observer and David Marshall looks a superior goalkeeper. Cardiff fans will have a far more informed opinion, and perhaps a different one too?
Knowing me, knowing you…
For Crystal Palace, Wilfried Zaha was the man under the microscope. After recently signing a new five-and-a-half year deal at Selhurst Park, at least this attention was more about his talent and potential as a Palace player rather than the usual hyperbole over a possible move to the Premier League. Although not one of his best games, Zaha did showcase his unusual ability to hold the ball up. For a winger, this is something of a curio but his physical attributes, close control and trickery make him a great outlet.
Fans often obsess over the “end product” of a winger, demanding goals and assists aplenty. Zaha is capable of that but his main asset is arguably the way he can turn a defensive position into an attacking one in a very short space of time. Used frequently as an “out ball” by the Palace defence, Zaha can keep the ball under pressure and often wins set pieces further up the pitch than he receives the ball. Although this might look frustrating at times, it is a useful resource for any team and Palace will score goals from positions they have gained in this manner.
Cardiff’s main attacking threat, of course, is Peter Whittingham. In terms of goals and assists, he is their go-to man and, as Joe Harrison recently stated in his Cardiff City tactics bible, stop Whittingham and you have a good chance of stopping Cardiff. At times, especially in the latter stages of the game, Cardiff looked like an American Football team as Whittingham held possession deep in the Palace half in the style of a quarterback and looked to find one of the runners in front of him. This approach may have to be repeated in the second leg if Dougie Freedman’s men opt to hold what they have.
The home side retreat
Palace were happy to sit back and soak up Cardiff’s possession for long periods of the game. The home side’s hard-working midfielders closed gaps in the centre of the pitch and also tracked their men well when straying into wide positions. Cardiff’s free approach to midfield, with players swapping positions at will, can be hard to keep tabs on but Freedman countered it effectively for the most part, although it is clearly worth pointing out that the away side had a Kenny Miller goal ruled out by referee Mike Dean for the faintest of touches by Joe Mason on Palace goalkeeper Julian Speroni.
The energy of attack-minded players such as Don Cowie, Mason and Gunnarsson is less effective when there is little space in which to operate. Palace tried to make sure the game wasn’t too stretched and planned to use their own pace on the break, first through Zaha and then later the substitute Sean Scannell, to force a second goal.
The second leg
That didn’t arrive, meaning Palace have a slender one-goal advantage to take into the second leg at the Cardiff City Stadium. The way his side coped with Cardiff’s pressure will give Freedman plenty to be positive about as there will be more of this to come in Wales. If they can utilise set pieces to the same effect they did when Gardner struck for the only goal last night, Palace will fancy their chances of nicking a draw but it will be difficult to prevent Cardiff from scoring.
The Bluebirds have scored in each of their last ten home games, including five in their past two against Middlesbrough and Reading – the two sides directly below them in the current Championship table. Palace, meanwhile, have just thirteen goals in thirteen league away games this season and lost 2-0 in the corresponding league fixture on Bonfire Night. Let’s hope for fireworks when the two meet again in thirteen days’ time.