MONDAY BIG MATCH VERDICT: Wanderers 0 Cardiff City 1
GUTSY as Wanderers’ response was to last week’s Madejski Massacre, they clearly still have a lot more making up to do before all is forgiven.
Eight of the players berated by Dougie Freedman after the 7-1 defeat at Reading were out there again, trying to win a cup tie that appeared low on the agenda for either club, in truth.
The manager got his reaction – defensively-speaking this was fantasy football compared to the tripe served up seven days earlier. But as industrious as they were, Wanderers never looked likely to win the game outright, mustering just one shot of their own on target all afternoon.
Andy Lonergan described last week’s drubbing as the worst feeling he’d experienced in football “by a million miles” – and that after he had emerged relatively blameless, compared with a lot of his team-mates.
Here, though, the weird and wonderful life of a goalkeeper was laid bare as one horrid mistake five minutes after half time gift-wrapped a winner for Fraizer Campbell, and proved the difference on the day.
That first goal always looked like being a crucial one, with neither side looking particularly sharp on the attacking front.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had made six changes with his midweek return to Manchester United in mind, including the hulking £8million front man Andreas Cornelius and ex-Whites loanee Joe Mason, neither of whom gave Matt Mills and Zat Knight a moment’s trouble.
It was only when Campbell and the excellent Craig Noone came off the bench at half time that Cardiff looked anything like Premier League material.
If only Dougie Freedman had such quality in reserve.
With David Ngog talking to Swansea about his impending top-flight return, Craig Davies was the only fit striker. It was good to see the swashbuckling front man back again after so long out of action but sustaining the hustle and bustle for 90 minutes was always going to be a big ask.
Around him Chung-Yong Lee and Neil Danns both stood up after off-days last week. The Korean was particularly lively in the first half but his lack of end product was symptomatic of Wanderers’ problems.
It was a different story for Chris Eagles, though, as every attacking trick in his book seemed to go wrong.
The official statistics show Wanderers mustered one shot on David Marshall’s goal, although they do not take into account two deflected efforts that forced the Cardiff keeper into smart saves.
They do, however, highlight the crippling imbalance in Freedman’s squad. Fior while he possesses plenty of attack-minded players, none are able to find the target on a regular basis.
Though defensive cover is woefully short, finding someone to lead the line up front and perhaps work alongside Davies, is probably the most pressing concern.
There was nothing wrong with Wanderers’ build-up play early on. Indeed, they were the better side in the first half.
Chances were few and far between. Mark Hudson went close with a far-post header for the visitors while Chung-Yong arrowed a late volley just wide, and agonisingly out of reach of Eagles’ outstretched boot.
Freedman will have found no fault with the effort put in, summed up by a terrific block by Alex Baptiste as Peter Whittingham looked to let fly with a shot from the edge of the area.
Cardiff’s half-time substitutions worked immediately, however, and it was a hopeful cross by Noone that skimmed off Baptiste’s head and squirmed out of Lonergan’s grasp that allowed Campbell to roll the ball into the net from an acute angle.
It nearly got worse for the Wanderers keeper, clearly rattled by his error, and a poor punch was nearly punished by Campbell a few minutes later.
Kevin McNaughton, rightly given a warm ovation by home fans when his name was announced before the game, seems to have found a new lease of life as a rampaging left wing-back.
The silver-haired Scot would be on most fans’ shortlist in the transfer window but the chances of his return on loan are starting to look slimmer based on performances as assured as this.
Cardiff keeper Marshall bailed his side out with a few good saves around the hour mark – first beating away a shot from Danns, then tipping away two cruel deflections from his own defenders.
But the final 20 minutes proved to be a complete anti-climax.
Andre Moritz and Sanmi Odelusi were sent on to try to add some spark but Cardiff had weathered the best the Whites had to offer and saw the game out rather comfortably.
There were a few grumbles echoing round a half-empty Reebok at the final whistle but most fans will accept that while the cup was a nice distraction, the Championship is where the real questions will be asked.
With two away trips bookending the last week of the transfer window, you cannot help but think this is a hugely significant spell for Freedman and his side.