As Sean Morrison soared above a typically inert Town defence to put Cardiff in to the lead on another miserable away day for the Terriers, all the plans to quell set piece concessions – which now included playing 3 centre halves, rather than the more obvious recall of Hudson to match Lambert’s lack of pace with equivalent slothfulness – not only crumbled; a new level of terror and fragility was introduced.
Wittingham’s delivery, to the surprise of no one, was excellent; deep, inswinging and crying out to be attacked, but the Bluebirds had already softened up the visitors’ defence with dangerous corners and a free kick from out wide and the infliction of a familiar wound was horribly predictable.
For the third away game in succession, the inability to exert control – a quality which defined both early successes and failures on the road – proved fatal and, despite the eventually slim margin of defeat, Town were condemned to defeat just after the half hour when Schindler was swatted away by Morrison to tee up Lambert for an easy chance to restore the home team’s 2 goal cushion.
In between Cardiff’s first and third, they had doubled the lead on 28 minutes when a routine effort by Pilkington was pushed in to Hoillett’s path by Ward, who will rue a weak arm which should have pushed the ball to safety, even at the expense of another panic inducing corner.
At 2-0 down, and like at Fulham, Smith had the chance to bring Town back in the game. Unlike at Fulham, the right wing back took the opportunity and finished off an excellent Town move with a good left foot finish, adding his name to the long list of single goal scorers.
The ball through to him from Palmer – who was Town’s main, perhaps only, positive in a torrid first half – was made possible by Smith’s movement and enterprise; as we were to witness in the second half, for all Town’s possession is easy on the eye, penetration remains elusive and the flow inhibited to the point of inertia in the final third.
Smith’s goal should have provided the platform for Town to impose their ability on the ball against their more physical hosts, but, instead, Cardiff were able to bring their strengths to the game too comfortably – epitomised by their third goal.
It is forgivable to succumb to the quality of delivery involved in the opening goal; Whittingham’s skill should be acknowledged and respected. It is quite another consideration for a ball which travels many, many yards to a back post area, high in the air and pathetically defended.
Compounding Schindler’s wholly inadequate leap, Lambert was left in far too much space by Hefele who failed to reposition once the high defensive line had been breached by Morrison’s beasting of his teammate.
Any hope of Town building on their goal, establishing the type of control of which they are capable (demonstrated in the second half) and turning the momentum of the game disappeared with a display of rank and ill disciplined defending.
With the away support tucked in to a corner, and perhaps in fewer numbers than expected, and a home crowd depleted by the attraction of a Wales rugby international just down the road, there was little atmosphere in the Cardiff City stadium and the contrast with the pre game buzz in the city centre for the Millennium Stadium event was stark.
A dank November day collided with the reality now facing the travelling support at half time; Wagner’s new plan for the team’s enlarged Achilles’ heel had palpably failed, a first 3 goal haul of the season was needed for a point and an even more unlikely 4 for a win, assuming that Cardiff didn’t continue to push their fingers in to the gaping wound at the heart of their opponents’ defence.
The opening exchanges of the second half suggested that another heavy defeat was on the cards as corners, high balls and lightly conceded free kicks peppered Town’s fragile defensive line. A combination of increased resilience, which was to their credit, blocks and a propensity for infringement by the home attackers saw Town weather the early storm until Wagner abandoned his 3 central defender idea, withdrawing Schindler for Scannell and introduced much needed height with Billing replacing Hogg.
The substitutions worked to the extent that Stankovic and Hefele looked more comfortable as a pair, Billing added more grace to the midfield and the Scannell/Smith combination offered a little more threat down the right.
For the last 30 minutes, Town dominated possession and at least looked capable of creating chances. Unfortunately, for all their excellent build up play, the visitors rarely troubled Morrison and Bamba and failed to get down the sides of Cardiff often enough.
Hopes were raised by a Billing thunderbolt on 70 minutes. Wells made a good run in to the area – a rarity, unfortunately – and the ball was half cleared to the Dane who instinctively swung his left foot through the ball which flew in to the top corner.
The game at this point barely deserved such an excellent goal, but if it precedes the talented Billing’s full return to the team as a useful resource it will be looked upon doubly fondly.
With redemption at least a possibility, Town showed some of the quality which had seen them storm the league before Autumn. Comfortable on the ball, more movement off it and crisp passing returned, interrupted only by some over fussy refereeing by a man apparently bent on inconsistency.
While the referee’s performance was distinctly average – he had become worse the longer the game went on and his reserves of benefit doubt for the home team appeared inexhaustible while seeing transgression in every Town challenge – he wasn’t to blame for Town’s inability to breach Cardiff’s back line with the kind of incisive pass Palmer had found in the first half.
Away from home, the weaknesses of Wells seem heightened. Too easily outmuscled, he then falls back in to the midfield too often and most of his good touches are far too far away from goal.
It is surely time for Wagner to push Kachunga up front in to Wells’ role. He offers greater strength, better ball retention and more potency. Van La Parra’s exile must also be surely coming to an end – frustrating as he can undoubtedly be, he adds a spontaneity to our attacking lacking in too many others.
However, Town scored 2 excellent goals away from home which should, and usually does, deliver reward but the defensive frailties cruelly exposed in recent weeks away from home have condemned the Terriers to a meagre points haul since Preston and a slide down the table is looking ominously likely unless resolved, and quickly.
Town may also reconsider wearing the red/orange change kit in favour of the more luminous yellow and black – increased visibility may help our attacking play. This is less frivolous than it sounds.