Cardiff City’s bid to gain promotion to the hallowed land of the Premiership will continue on Wednesday with a home game against mid-table Watford.
Dave Jones is anticipating a late charge for one of the automatic promotion positions but, if this is to be achieved, the Watford fixture has suddenly assumed the unwanted status of a “must-win” game.
The Bluebirds are lurking in the last play off position with three games in hand over Birmingham, who occupy second position and are 11 points ahead. The Watford game is the first of four consecutive fixtures at Ninian Park. Cardiff should be making every other promotion rival sweat, but their recent form has been patchy at best and, right now, nothing is assured.
Watford is the prelude to a tough game at home to fellow high-fliers Sheffield United this weekend, followed closely by the grudge match against Swansea. A slip-up against Watford, who have been resurgent under their new manager Brendan Rodgers, could see them lose valuable ground.
The game should be approached with caution. Sheffield Wednesday required a 97th minute penalty to earn a draw at home on Saturday. Before that, the Hornets had won six games on the trot under the influential tutorship of their Scottish manager, who came from Chelsea’s youth team with the personal seal of approval from Jose Mourinho after Aidy Boothroyd left the club in November.
It would be churlish to describe Cardiff’s campaign as faltering but, with some below par performances recently, it equally cannot be described as a perfectly running machine. The late, salvaged and barely deserved point in the Severnside derby on Sunday, in which Cardiff were gifted a goal by the opposing ‘keeper Adriano Basso, exposed limitations that will be worrying Dave Jones.
The heavy defeat to Arsenal in the Carling Cup seems to have affected their confidence. With Michael Chopra out of touch, Jay Bothroyd carrying an injury and looking disinterested, the opportunistic McCormack expressing frustration at his lack of opportunities and Joe Ledley lacking support from lesser colleagues, Cardiff are suddenly struggling for goals.
Against Bristol, the midfield looked fragmented and struggled to impose itself, the defence became increasingly willing to resort to route-one football and collectively the team was too reliant on set pieces. Bristol weren’t a hundred miles better, but they were at least committed to playing a high line and passing through the midfield.
As the game wore on, Bristol’s increasingly cultured approach play and ball retention made them look the better candidate for promotion. Jay Bothroyd left early with a recurrence of a calf injury and was replaced with the like for like striker Eddie Johnson, who hit a post with a header late on.
It is likely Dave Jones will partner the American with Chopra for tomorrow’s clash, as he has always been an advocate of playing a target man.
Jones should consider giving McCormack a start. He has remained patient after losing his place, despite scoring 17 goals this season.
Although he and Chopra are similar players, their pace and link up play will trouble a Watford defence not renowned for its speed, and may encourage the rest of the team to play with the ball on the floor.
It will be a valuable experiment. Cardiff are in the position they are in because they press well when not in possession and have developed the ability to stay in games when they are being outplayed. It may be enough to see them through to the end of season in this league, but it won’t be enough for the far more brutal and unforgiving battlegrounds of the Premiership.
First they must find a way to win those games in hand, starting tomorrow.