Clinical Cardiff destroyed lacklustre Leeds as Dave Jones’s side moved level on points with fellow Championship high-flyers QPR. Three quickfire goals in the second half killed the game as a contest, but the home side could so easily have made more of a spell in the first half when they were on top.
Leeds came into the game six points clear of the relegation zone, and knowing a win would lift them to within a point of the play-off spots. Their guests, save for one exceptional performance at Coventry last week, haven’t been firing on all cylinders so far this season, but such is the calibre of player available to Dave Jones, he’s managed to keep the Bluebirds happily inhaling the exhaust fumes of Neil Warnock’s Park Rangers.
Cocksure Cardiff immediately got comfy on the ball as their hosts sat off and pressed – furiously – from the halfway line. When Leeds did get the ball, they were unfussy and direct – the game’s first real chance coming when George McCartney dispossessed Chris Burke; the left-back finding Luciano Becchio to hold it up and lay on Bradley Johnson’s cross for the goal-hanging presence of David Somma.
The non-stop pressing unnerved Cardiff, and Jay Bothroyd, Craig Bellamy and Michael Chopra grew more irate with each robbing tackle: Leeds swarming back and doubling-up on the ball-holder. Gradually, Leeds edged their way into the game, and by pushing the defence as near to the deep-lying forwards as possible, Cardiff’s passing corridors were closed down. Although Chris Burke dropped back looking to collect and carry, the playmaking Peter Whittingham was less pass-spraying quarterback and more defensive screen.
As a result of being forced into quick decision making, Cardiff’s centre-backs – ruffled at the first sign of a white shirt in their vicinity – began pumping the ball long, hoping to get one of the forwards in behind the Leeds defence. The tactic failed (Cardiff’s strikers lacking the necessary fight), and Leeds were able to bring the ball back at the Bluebirds. The Elland Road outfit created a few crossed chances via the boot of Robert Snodgrass, but Cardiff’s defence looked far more comfortable in the air than they did on the deck.
Unsurprisingly, the game got bogged down in midfield, and the respective African powerhouses representing each sides (Seyi Olofinjana for Cardiff, Amdy Faye for Leeds) were as high as the forwards at times: albeit only in such advanced positions to snarl and snap. The pair’s lack of technical class showed on the occasions loose balls dropped outside of the box – Olofinjana and Faye were both so indecisive and cumbersome when forced into doing something attack-minded.
Leeds got a bit excited though, and began giving away silly fouls (Whittingham tamely hitting a golden free-kick chance at the wall), and leaving gaps at full-back for Bellamy, Burke and Bothroyd to exploit. However, Cardiff’s attackers weren’t operating on the same wavelength throughout the first half, and all their canny pull-backs and squares sailed harmlessly across the Leeds box.
When Cardiff did finally break the deadlock, it was in comical circumstances. With Leeds turning the screw via a series of corners, one that Tom Heaton managed to clutch was punted towards his opposite number. Leeds had adequate cover to deal with the long ball despite Jay Bothroyd lurking, but Simon Grayson’s side still managed to blot their copybook. Alex Bruce was slow to track back, he and Neill Collins never really specified who was dealing with the bouncing ball, and Kasper Schmeichel ended up in No Man’s Land. Bothroyd pounced, and Cardiff had the lead.
The contest was really open thereafter, but one thing hadn’t changed – neither side had any presence whatsoever when they did get balls in the box. The tables had turned in one sense, however – Cardiff were now the ones showing the hunger in pressing the ball – Bothroyd chasing any carrying centre-back or midfielder, and Peter Whittingham the Javier Mascherano type figure in his team’s D.
However, as if illustrating how alien playing without the ball is to this Cardiff team, the pressing wasn’t always so tactically tight. When the ball was lumped out of the danger zone, Cardiff’s foremost five players were instructed to form a wall on halfway to panic the Leeds moppers and hurry their use of the ball. However, the Cardiff back-four stayed on the edge of their box, Olofinjana was isolated, and thus Bradley Johnson and Robert Snodgrass were able to come inside, collect the ball, and look about and decide what they wanted to do with it. Fortunately for Cardiff, a combination of one-footed players and poor final balls kept the scoreline in the visitors’ favour.
The second half began at some pace, and both sides had chances. However, the ruthless South Wales side capitalised on two blunders to add to their tally within ten minutes. First, Somma was dispossessed, and Chopra, lurking between Collins and McCartney, was fed one-on-one with Schmeichel – he made no mistake. Leeds switched things round, bringing on Ramón Núñez for Somma, and reverting to a Spurs-esque 4-4-1-1 – a Crouch-like target-man laying on for the Honduran equivalent of Rafael van der Vaart.
Moments later, with a man down injured, Leeds switched off, and a Cardiff counter-attack was allowed too much time to develop on the right wing. A pull-back from the byline found Jay Bothroyd, who casually steered the ball in for Cardiff’s third goal of the evening. The travelling fans were buoyant, and so were the players – Lee Naylor icing a cake that already looked heartily lashed with sugary goodness by scoring a 25-yard-screamer on his right-foot. As clinical and classy as all Cardiff’s goals had been, Schmeichel (who once played on-loan at Cardiff) will be blaming himself for at least two of City’s goals.
Max-Alain Gradel came on as a sub, giving Leeds some much-needed width on the left. With Bradley Johnson playing more of a tucked-in role from the flank, Leeds’s game-plan of congesting the centre had failed. Similarly, as an attacking force, they were too clumsy and slow trying to concoct anything on the floor, and all their crosses were dealt with. Gradel gave Leeds something different by looking to get behind McNaughton and pull-back from the byline. But Cardiff, still pressing the ball with enormous hunger, packed the box well and had bodies to carry the counter.
Cardiff knew the game was won, and dominated possession purposelessly in the closing stages. Although Leeds did occasionally come at the Bluebirds, there was nothing penetrating about their attacks. The game petered out over the final 15 minutes, and not many people will be betting against Dave Jones’s side to spoil what looks to be a certain place in the 2011/12 Premier League.