A powerful, aggressive, Warnock inspired Cardiff overwhelmed a cautious and mistake riddled Town side with bigger things on their minds on an afternoon to forget for the hosts.
Reverting to a near full strength side, fear of injury or suspension pervaded a dreadful performance from the Terriers who gave the clear impression they wanted to get the game out of the way and probably hoped that their opponents were similarly unmotivated. Predictably, given their manager, that hope was cruelly dashed.
From the very beginning, sluggish and careless passing handed every initiative to the Welsh side who should have been 3 up within the first 15 minutes. Had Hoillett not drifted offside when played through by Pilkington following a poor ball out by Ward, the visitors would have capitalised on their hosts’ nonchalance within the first minute and the errors piled up in a woefully inept first half.
It didn’t take long for the Bluebirds’ overwhelming early dominance to bring reward. The impressive Zohore latching on to an excellent Pilkington through ball to easily outpace Hefele and slot past Ward.
With his only positive contribution to the day, Ward launched an excellent upfield punt for the unmarked Brown, only for the loanee to be caught just before pulling the trigger, but this was rare respite from Cardiff’s superiority and further chances fell their way with alarming regularity.
The disastrous early stages were capped by the dismissal of Ward. It is a toss up between Mooy’s terrible back pass and Ward pointing to his shoulder after clearly handling outside his area for laughable moment of the day and there were many contenders. There may be some mitigation of Mooy’s error, however – it is possible that the over watering of the pitch is interfering with our game, whether that be the players slipping against Fulham or affecting the judgement of pace when passing (such an error by Mooy is so rare as to be remarkable).
Without Ward’s ill advised and indecisive charge from his line (he pondered for a second or two first, as his wont at times), Zohore would have added a second that Cardiff’s fluency and energy would have deserved, but the Dane didn’t have to wait long before he set up Joe Bennett for an excellent strike past Coleman; neither did he have to work very hard to circumvent Town’s stagnant defence to get in to position with Mooy and Hefele easily bypassed.
Down to 10 men – Scannell being sacrificed when, ideally, the injury hit Londoner needed game time – and trailing to a massively superior side, damage limitation became the priority. While a much heavier deficit would have been little more than Cardiff deserved, a Smith/Brown combination created a great chance for Quaner to halve the deficit just before the break but the German, who worked hard on the scraps thrown at him, brought an excellent save from Murphy.
Town offered little else in a first half where they were far too easily bullied and the folly of playing at less than full tilt against any Championship side had been painfully exposed. It could also be argued that injury avoidance strategies can easily turn to disaster – playing at full tilt, quite rightly, one or two Cardiff challenges shook the recipients far harder than they normally would; being under par both physically and mentally arguably leaving every player more exposed to damage.
An entertaining opening to the second period saw Cardiff cut through Town’s rearguard yet again only for Pilkington to finish weakly and a decent interchange between Brown – who, encouragingly, shone from time to time – and Quaner allowed the former to release Van La Parra. The otherwise dreadful winger nearly reduced the arrears with a clever chip but was just off target.
Cardiff remained vastly superior, however, and were helped in particular by the sluggish and under cooked Hefele who delivered his worst display of the season by a distance – slow to react, poor positioning and half hearted tackling were so out of character that there was some comfort that, perhaps, it was a mind set rather than an ability issue.
Further chances eluded the visitors until Zohore – who would be perfect in this Town squad – turned Lowe inside out before feeding Bennett for his second and Cardiff’s third.
In truth, few cared by this point other than the celebrating Cardiff fans who clearly enjoyed their last day of the season, and other than a decent Town move which saw Quaner miss the target following a Mooy cross, the game petered out as even Warnock seemed to lose interest, telling his players to calm down at one point.
The inconvenience of having to play the final game of the season was palpable, and a mainly flat atmosphere (common for noon kick offs, worryingly) seemed to signal impatience at the damp squib of the final few games when a play off place was already obvious even before confirmation at Wolves.
Time will tell if David Wagner’s transparent strategy of replicating a pre season before the play offs, and on the face of it such a plan seems not only reasonable but eminently sensible, is successful but playing at less than full pace, intensity and discipline brought predictable results.
The loss of Ward for one game is not a disaster unless his perfectly adequate replacement succumbs to injury, the hugely important Brown came through the game unscathed (though squaring up to Morrison after a robust challenge could have resulted in disaster had it escalated) and the focus can now be turned fully on a very difficult play off semi final.
It is a shame that we have been unable, maybe even unwilling, to build momentum in to the post season competition but history shows that form doesn’t necessarily have to be good to succeed.
And so to the joys and agonies which await.