No shame as Norwich City lose out at leaders
CARDIFF CITY 3, NORWICH CITY 1: There was something of the ‘2004s’ about Cardiff City on Saturday. A team with plenty of goals in them. An experienced back line that gives little away. And an air of quality that suggests, whoever they come up against on the pitch, they will be close to finding a way to beat them.
Norwich City showed how to win the second tier in 2003-04.
On Cardiff’s efforts to date, you would back them to do the same.
So given that background, Saturday’s game understandably left Canaries supporters to digest both how far their side has come – and how far they have still go to go in terms of beating the Championship’s best.
It will certainly do City boss Paul Lambert and chief executive David McNally’s polite request for realism this season a favour.
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However, this was still a defeat with little to concern the Canaries, who for long periods of the first half left the watching Welsh contingent impressed – although not after some sloppy defensive moments had given Cardiff a two-goal head start they barely broke sweat for.
In-form Cardiff striker Jay Bothroyd had already headed over one of Peter Whittingham’s supremely flighted corners via a Mark Hudson knock back before the Bluebirds repeated the trick in the ninth minute – this time, Gabor Gyepes found Bothroyd to make it 12 goals from 14 games.
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Three minutes later and the buoyant home side doubled their advantage, route one style.
It was all too easy as Tom Heaton’s goal kick was flicked by Bothroyd, who beat Leon Barnett – his only mistake all afternoon – and Michael Chopra got the wrong side of Elliott Ward before finishing with an eye-catching coolness under the on-rushing John Ruddy.
Norwich fans had been here before – two goals down in quick time away from home against a side in top form.
But that fear of the road seems to be long gone; City, under Lambert, don’t do folding. In fact, they do the complete opposite.
With Wes Hoolahan and Korey Smith having returned to his starting XI at the expense of David Fox and Anthony McNamee, City dusted off their slow start and began to show the fluency the cast of its diamond formation brings.
First Grant Holt had the ball in the net from a fine header and Simeon Jackson’s lovely cross, but was penalised for a push – before Jackson missed what can only be described as a sitter.
On his own, six yards out with Heaton out of position, Jackson side-footed his volley straight at the Cardiff keeper after Holt had done so well to find him. Gilt-edged chance simply would not do it justice.
Steven Smith sent Chopra cartwheeling into the air with a mistimed challenge to earn the day’s first booking – and boos from the home fans for his every touch after.
The home side were struggling to get out of their own half – admittedly, having already earned a two-goal lead.
However, that was halved as City deservedly got back into the game with an excellent goal from the superb Hoolahan.
He had already gone close once – running almost the entire length of the pitch before bringing a decent save from Heaton.
But he soon got the goal he warranted. Patient build up on 34 minutes saw Simon Lappin tee-up Steven Smith’s cross, and the little Irishman dived bravely to head home from close range – taking a big whack in the face from Gyepes for his troubles. Several minutes of treatment to the cuts and bruises on his face merely proved what a brave header it was.
At that point the game was perfectly poised – but we never got to see how it would pan out as two minutes later, Cardiff got another helping hand.
This time, it was the combination of Ward and referee Graham Scott. The defender could do little to get out of the way of Barnett’s clearing header, with the ball clearly striking Ward’s arm in the box.
However, the official’s reluctance to penalise similar indiscretions elsewhere on the pitch during the game left you wondering if the spot kick – first signalled by his assistant – was harsh. Peter Whittingham’s penalty was cool, calm and perfectly placed. Ruddy had no chance, and the Canaries seemed set to fare little better thanks to it.
There was still time before the break for Bellamy to take a corner in front of the gathered Norwich fans – notable for the reception they gave their former favourite.
Bellamy returned the gesture with a thumbs up, and the Cardiff supporters acknowledged the mutual appreciation with some applause of their own.
But once ‘hostilities’ resumed in the second half, Norwich never matched their earlier control.
Ruddy thumbled a Chris Burke cross with Chopra waiting, and then saved well from the striker’s volley as Cardiff showed their superior quality. The home side also kept Norwich at bay, with Hudson and Gyepes first to almost every cross all afternoon.
Barnett took out Bellamy as he broke clear, his third booking of the campaign, while Andrew Crofts picked up number four as he arrived late on Bothroyd – who was within inches of adding to his tally when a scorching volley crashed against Ruddy’s bar.
So Cardiff’s attention switches to their big south Wales derby with Swansea on Sunday – and beyond that, keeping hold of the Championship’s top spot. It would be brave to suggest they won’t be there come May.
As for City, they remain in a play-off place with two of the season’s toughest trips done with.
And while Cardiff – who reached the Championship play-off final last season – may be ahead of them, the Canaries – playing League One football last season – have already proved they are not too far behind.