The first game for the season. The phoney war of pre-season is over. Fans traditionally divided between glass half-full, half-empty, is there even a glass or who cares – HMS PTL is launched.
A week ago Gary asked us all to provide our thoughts for the new season. I was in the cautiously positive band, albeit predicting a second-place finish.
So far, the Dean Smith era has been characterised by performances that are best described as vanilla. After the exciting flavours of the Daniel Farke regime – exotic rum and raisin followed by bitter lemon – many fans have found this hard to stomach.
Pre-season has done little to alleviate their concerns. An exciting counter-attacking display against Marseille was followed by an insipid display against Celtic.
But pre-season is over. This is the real thing. Welcome back to the Championship. Welcome back indeed. To the land of half-empty stadia and atrocious refereeing. See where I’m going?
Smith selected a Farke-esque 4-2-3-1 for his first game back. Jacob Sorenson and Kenny McLlean provided the defensive screen, a triumvirate of Milot Rashica, Todd Cantwell and Josh Sargent behind Teemu Pukki.
The game began and we were off.
To say Cardiff dominated the early encounters would be too strong a statement. They had more of the possession, looked neat and industrious but never threatening, never dangerous. City held the line comfortably and over the first 25 minutes, inched their way into the game.
What was immediately apparent was the willingness of referee Tim Robinson to turn a blind eye to some fairly robust challenges. Cantwell was the recipient of more than his fair share of the love early on, Steve Morison clearly having imbued some of the Millwall spirit in his new charges.
City created the best chance of the half on 19 minutes. McLean made an interception in midfield and played the ball to Cantwell – his curling shot was goal bound but an excellent save from Allsop tipped it wide.
Six minutes later, Cardiff had one of only two efforts on goal in the whole game. Ojo battled through four or five City players before hitting a weak effort that Tim Krul stopped easily.
As the half wore on, City exerted more and more control. Sorensen was influential, not only breaking up Cardiff attacks with some tenacious tackling, but also spraying passes around and creating space.
One hesitates to take too much from pre-season, nor even from the first game of the season, but the outstanding feature of both was the lack of a creative spark from City. Cantwell made some potentially threatening passes, but always seemed to find a Cardiff defender.
Rashica was well marshalled by Cardiff, surrounded by three or four players every time he received the ball. Other than that, City showed little threat.
Two seasons ago, an insipid first-half performance by the Canaries seemed always to be followed by a storming second half. For a few minutes, City appeared to be upping the tempo – a precursor to good things?
On 48 minutes, O’Dowda cut inside Max Aarons too easily and played the ball inside to Sawyers whose shot from distance bounced over the diving Krul’s left hand. From some angles, it seemed to take a deflection off Omobamidele, but regardless, it was 1-0.
City so nearly struck back. A Cantwell corner was met by McLean with a great flick-volley only to see his effort cannon off the crossbar.
From then on, the game began to warm up. As alluded to earlier, Cardiff were not shy with some of their tackles. On one occasion, Aarons was flattened within feet of the assistant referee’s nose. Nothing given. Seconds later, Pukki was penalised for a challenge no worse within yards of the original tackle. Tempers were rising.
On 66 minutes it all kicked off.
Pukki ran the ball out of defence and was clearly fouled. The referee waived play on. He carried on a few yards before being fouled again and then all the players waded in.
Referee Robinson made a great play of calling his assistants over, taking notes assiduously, before showing yellow cards to Hanley and Ralls. The replay clearly showed that Hanley was innocent, however, it showed that Omobamidele looked to have landed an ’aggressive push’ on a Cardiff player and should have been the recipient of at least a yellow card.
On 70 minutes, Danil Sinani and Liam Gibbs replaced Sargent and Sorensen. The American had hassled a good opportunity once in the second half but for the majority of the game proven anonymous. Sorensen, however, had had his most convincing performance yet in his preferred defensive midfield role.
Minutes later, the game took a twist.
Ng made a tackle no worse, no better than many that had seen play waved on earlier in the game. The referee produced a yellow, followed by a red – I didn’t even realise he had received a yellow, and Cardiff were reduced to 10 men.
City were now having the majority of the possession, yet fashioned no clear chances. Worryingly, Pukki went off for some attention, before being replaced by Jordan Hugill
The pace of the game was becoming frantic as City searched for an equaliser, yet for all the huff and puff, they failed to fashion anything resembling even a half-chance. Onel Hernandez came on with Hugill and looked by far the most threatening player in the closing stages.
On 84, Hanley made an innocuous challenge. Referee Robinson reached for his pocket and produced a yellow, followed by a red. I’m sure far more experienced adjudicators than I can explain why, yet I defy anyone to explain why such challenges were allowed earlier in the game without even a free kick being given.
So let’s trot out the clichés. Yo-Yo City. Looking to bounce back at the first attempt. Felled at the first hurdle.
What comfort can we find from this?
On the face of it, very little. Another Dean Smith performance with little spark, shape or character. Looking at individual performances, Omobamidele looked superb – albeit a little too feisty at times – Sorensen looked combative in midfield and Cantwell looked committed and determined. It’s surely only a matter of time before some of his creativity pays dividends.
It is only the first game of the season. There is the small matter of the summer signings, Issac Hayden and Gabriel Sara, to enter the fray and possibly a few more to follow.
However, those of us with our positive goggles on may be removing them for a polish and the glass half-full merchants may be re-evaluating their position towards half-empty.
Let’s hope Smith and Shakey can produce a little miracle in the next few weeks, improve performances and justify my pre-season optimism.