Cardiff City lost last Sunday’s Carling Cup Final but – as I mentioned last week – it was a close game. The Bluebirds took the lead with a goal from Joe Mason and then Ben Turner managed to force home a dramatic short range equaliser with two minutes left in injury time. Unfortunately Anthony Gerrard missed the crucial penalty and that was that for 2011/12.
The Welsh side won a lot of new friends on Sunday with their performance (especially amongst the pundits who only ever seem to watch Championship teams when they play Premier League opposition) but the real challenge facing Malky Mackay and his team is winning promotion. In the eight seasons since their return to second tier football, the Bluebirds have only finished outside the top half of the table three times. We have an immediate opportunity to see how they react to their defeat but I’ll come to that later.
In the league, last weekend didn’t see much change at the top: Southampton won 3-0 at Vicarage Road and victory saw them move back to pole position. Despite being held at home by Crystal Palace, West Ham are a point behind the Saints with a game in hand but the key stat to keep an eye on as the season begins to reach a climax is Southampton’s vastly superior goal average.
In the battle for the playoff spots goals from Noel Hunt and Ian Harte at Middlesbrough propelled Reading into third place and Brian McDermott’s decision to sign a new contract strongly implies that he’s committed to winning promotion with the Berkshire club, who have now kept five consecutive clean sheets. Arguably the biggest surprise last weekend was Birmingham City losing their unbeaten home record to Nottingham Forest, for whom Dexter Blackstock scored twice. Forest aren’t exactly safe yet but may have timed their escape perfectly.
If anything, the situation at the bottom of the table has become even more desperate. As well as Forest’s win at St Andrews, Millwall fully deserved their victory at Burnley. If Coventry can pull off a shock win at Leicester and Bristol City lose at Ipswich, the Sky Blues will be out of the bottom three since the end of October. Manager Andy Thorn won’t be at the King Power Stadium tomorrow: he was taken to hospital yesterday after falling ill during training but his illness does not seem to be serious.
The other issue that could have an impact on the relegation battle are this week’s new revelations about the increasingly desperate situation at Portsmouth. Administrator Trevor Birch has admitted that Pompey may face liquidation before the end of the season: if the club’s record is expunged, the landscape at both ends of the table could change dramatically – but hopefully that’s an issue that I won’t have to write about.
This weekend’s action begins tonight with Blackpool playing Hull at Bloomfield Road (Sky Sports 2, 7:45pm kick off) in a game between two sides who are still in the running for promotion, even though they look more like playoff contenders right now. Hull have the better recent form but I’ve always thought that they don’t have enough firepower to overwhelm their opponents. The Tigers are primarily a defensive team, especially away from home: there hasn’t been more than one goal in a Hull away game since the end of November. Blackpool have only lost twice in their last ten home games against Hull and their recent battering by West Ham was their first home defeat since October.
The highlight of tomorrow’s games of the week is Reading’s trip to Millwall: the hosts did themselves a favour last week when Andy Keogh, Josh Wright and Harry Kane scored at Burnley. The Lions’ problem at the moment is that they’ve been horrible at home: since beating Portsmouth on Boxing Day they’ve lost four of their five league games at the New Den and as I mentioned above, Reading are in very good form at the moment. In addition to their defensive prowess, the Royals have won their last three road trips and have also won three of the last five games between the sides in East London.
After the 3:00pm kick offs have finished, Leeds v Southampton (Sky Sports 2, 5:20pm) looks as if it could be worth watching – it’s exactly the sort of game that Neil Warnock relishes. Leeds have had the better of recent meetings between these two at Elland Road (only two defeats in the last ten) but only managed to beat Doncaster last time out thanks to a late goal. The Saints are unbeaten in four away games and have kept clean sheets in three of them.
As I mentioned above, we have an opportunity to see if Cardiff have recovered from their Wembley disappointment when they entertain West Ham on Sunday lunchtime, the only game this weekend between two clubs in the top six and one of the occasional forays the BBC1 makes into broadcasting live football. The Hammers aren’t regular visitors to the Welsh capital – they’ve only played there twice since the turn of the century – and haven’t won in Cardiff since April 1980. It’s also worth mentioning that although we’ve seen a lot of different clubs in the top six recently, Cardiff always seem to have the best head to head record against the other contenders for promotion – last month’s home defeat by Blackpool is their only defeat against another team from the current top six this season – but the Bluebirds always manage to somehow blow it at the worst possible moment.
There’s a full midweek programme next week, but rather than concentrating on individual games I’m going to be taking a slightly different angle: I was surprised to see that the average goals per game this season has plummeted this season – it’s gone largely unnoticed and I’m curious about why it’s happened. Hopefully I’ll be able to provide some answers.