We are standing out front in a blizzard, with a viscous mix of snow and rain brewing above, waiting for a cab to take us to Digbeth coach station. The journey ends about 3 hours later, when we step out into swirling winds and spitting rain in Cardiff. We dive into the Prince of Wales under the shadow of the Millennium Stadium for a bite to eat before heading for the Travelodge. We then squeeze in an hours nap before heading back out, only its not so much spit now, more sheet rain that greets us, and its cold with it. Welcome then to away travel; to life on the road with Aston Villa.
For those of you who watch away games from your armchairs it is easy, I imagine, to be sucked into the boom and bang of Premier League spin, though often when you visit these grounds, the reality disappoints. Cardiff City Stadium is a good example: it’s a sheet metal shell with all the character of an aircraft hanger, knocked up to modern specifications. And then there’s those ferocious Cardiff City supporters, right? During a stirring choral rendition of ‘Men of Harlech’ a gentle wave of song came up from the home end, only to then peter out. Not so much ‘where’s your famous atmosphere?’ more ‘where is your atmosphere?’ This is not the pride and fire I have heard about on the tele.
It does cross my mind that Cardiff City have undergone a rather invasive sporting re-branding exercise in recent seasons; one that has set Vincent Tan and his board at odds with an identity, and a club history, dating all the way back to 1899, and all in the hope of tapping into foreign markets and investors. Add that to the reality of being 2nd from bottom with games running out and perhaps that is enough to stifle home voices.
When team news comes in on Twatter there are a few raised eyebrows. Vlaar is back in, with Baker alongside. Bacuna and Bertrand start as fullbacks. Albrighton, Delph, Westwood and Bennett line up across the middle in a flat four with Agbonlahor and Benteke up front. With Kenwyn Jones leading the line for Cardiff, Lambert obviously feels that Bakesy will offer the sort of physical challenge we will need at the back, with Bennett given the chance to player higher up the pitch in a left-midfield role, whilst offering double cover for Bertrand who is probably playing through the pain barrier. Chris Foy (not my favourite referee) checks his watch and… we are off.
Despite a rasping shot from Delph, Cardiff have the best of it early on. They utilize some good width play, feeding both Zaha and Noone. Despite having three fullbacks on the pitch and a winger we are caught out positionally, allowing Zaha the time and space to drift in. He sends in a finely weighted chip pass into Frazier Campbell, who collects, unleashing a fine shot. Guzan makes a good save, the ball spins up and comes back of the far-post, as the air is sucked out of the stadium. We are at sixes and sevens.
The ball comes out, is won by Theophile-Catherine (a big name) before being played into Noone. Noone cuts inside, goes past three on a lateral run, unleashing one from 20 yards… but Westwood is there with a last ditch tackle… the ball curls up…. and it’s off the bar again!!! We are on the ropes here and we’re only 15 minutes in.
The ball bounces around the 20 yard area and goes out for a throw in. It’s chucked back in to Kenwyn Jones, who catches us napping at right-back. He takes it into the box and down to the byline. Baker has his arms all over him. Kenwyn Jones goes down as he pulls it back across the box but the ball evades Campbell. On another day we could and would have conceded a penalty.
Vlaar eventually sweeps up – and then does so again when the ball comes back in from Zaha. His positional sense is excellent, as is his reading of the game. He’s a composed figure,offering precious leadership and experience – and boy do we need it because Noone, Zaha and Jones are running rampant.
A poor goal kick from Guzan… and it comes straight back to our defence. Baker, rather than putting a foot on it and playing it smartly forward, slices a clearance back over his head, playing Campbell on-side. Guzan rushes out to the edge of the area, arms flapping. Roncrete Vlaar intercedes, putting the ball out for a corner. That was so bad it was comical. Cardiff take the corner…Noone….and Zaha swivels and sticks it in but he’s a country mile off side.
As we go into the break I have no idea how Cardiff have not scored. If it were not for Vlaar I think we would be at least 1-0 down.
When the 2nd half starts Cardiff pick up where they left off. Kenwyn Jones beats two Villa players to the ball, knocking on for Campbell. He beats Vlaar with trickery and pace only to drag his shot wide of the post. No surprise that scoring has been Cardiff’s problem all season. Just 19 goals in 25 games tells it’s own story.
On 60 minutes we finally wake up and realise that there is a game one. Bacuna combines nicely with Agbonlahor who releases the versatile Dutchman on a diagonal run to goal. He bursts into the box… Benteke is at the far post… just a good ball needed…. but no!!! He’s gone for the angle finish (as he did at Goodison) but this time the ball goes well wide… and Benteke is spitting feathers. The ball to the far post was surely the best option. It might have helped of course if Benteke had thrown himself at it, though the big man isn’t partial to mud.
Theophile-Catherine makes a good run in behind Bertrand. He received the ball and goes down to the chalk, then swings one if for Jones…. but his point-blank header is aimed straight at Guzan. Anywhere else and that’s in.
A super through ball from Bacuna sends Benteke clear. He’s in the box…..yes…yes… but he takes the extra touch, allowing the excellent Ben Turner to make a match saving tackle.
We are now on top. After some sharp interchanging passing across the middle, Delph tries another from range… it’s a low drive.. deflects off Caulker… it’s there….nooo…. a superb diving save from David Marshall. If Cardiff do survive this season David Marshall will be in hot demand. What a very talented young keeper.
Weimann comes on 70 minutes in, replacing Bennett, who was as bad in left-midfield as he was at fullback. The Austrian adds to our drive and energy. There must be a winner here for us?
After more dominance we break again, Albrighton feeding Benteke, who flicks it across the box for Agbonlahor…. surely…. no!!! …tackled by Theophile-Catherine. We are going crazy in the away end and for all the wrong reasons. Agbonlahor had geological time then but he waited for an eternity. Marshall closed the angle and the defender stepped in. Another wasted chance and he knows it. Poor from Agbonlahor.
We are ripping into Cardiff now. Bertrand on the overlap. He received the ball, curling one across the face of the goal… someone please….. but no. More anger from the away masses. Neither Agbonlahor or Benteke were prepared to throw themselves at it. Neither of them slide in or opt for the crashing header. Disgraceful. It’s static movement in injury time from our forwards, with both seemingly allergic to dirt.
We have seconds left when we mount yet another counter move. Benteke plays in Westwood from 20 yards out. Westy knocks it across the box for Weimann…. this has to be….. oh, what a save!!! Superman is reborn in David Marshall. An absolute worldly from the Bluebird’s keeper. And that’s it: at full-time it’s Cardiff 0-0 Aston Villa.
The weather relents when we get out, allowing for a dry walk back to Queen Street. Villa_Button went to University in Cardiff so I’m really following her as she seems to know the way.
As we stomp away from the ground the emotion starts to earth. My voice is cracked and I’m emotionally wrecked after what was a close game, yet the disappointment is apparent on both our faces. We try and shake it off. We distract ourselves with a conversation about the evolution and discovery of the raisin; of commercial drying processes in fruit production. The stuff we talk about! Watching this lot is enough to turn anyone into a fruitloop.
When we get back into the City Centre there is a drunk guy walking up the High Street, with a bottle of beer, making Nazi salutes and gestures in good German. Sadly, he is wearing a claret and blue hat. The utter shame of it.
Thoughts shift back to the game. Why does it take us so long to get going? Why can’t we just play our best game from the off? That was a dreadful first half-showing in which, if it were not for a fair bit of luck and the composure of Villa captain Vlaar, we could have easily conceded. Conversely, an excellent second half showing from us, but one in which we were wasteful in front of goal.
On this evidence Cardiff are in deep. They cannot score the goals they need against the teams they need to beat and the game counter is running low. No doubt, we will be looking cautiously over our shoulders in 11th, though I still think we’ll finish somewhere between 10th-12th, though it’s hardly inspiring stuff is it? We have struggled to score here tonight despite having a handful of clear cut chances and continue to be inconsistent in almost every department.
Next up Newcastle away.
Man of the match: Vlaar
Room for improvement: Bennett
Grizzly: Cardiff Away