After the successful away trip to North-West London, exterminating the Hornets’ unbeaten home record, Neil Harris men headed to the West Midlands, facing an in-form Stoke City side who were earning plenty of plaudits for returning to their old, arduous ways. A cold, wet, windy Tuesday night in Stoke always proved difficult, The Potters had lost just 2 games at the bet365 Stadium this season, but the Bluebirds rewrote the narrative, in a compelling victory.
For the fourth game running, Harris named an unchanged side, looking to take advantage of the growing confidence of his players. After their third consecutive clean sheet, Curtis Nelson and skipper Sean Morrison were hoping for more of the same, tasked with the challenge of nullifying the aerial dominance of Stoke’s set-piece. The big-man, little-man combination of Kieffer Moore and, youngster, Mark Harris were looking to cause the oppositions defence problems, with Moore setting his sights on earning double figures before the Christmas break.
Also coming off the back of their third consecutive clean-sheet, the Potters named two changes, Tommy Smith replacing Danny Batth at centre-half, and Josh Tymon replacing former Swansea midfielder Sam Clucas, whom both were forced to withdraw from Saturday’s win over Borough with injuries.
With both teams keeping such good clean sheet records prior to this matchup, it comes as no surprise then that the opening quarter of the game offered very little scoring opportunity. Neither team wanted to stray from their defensive setups, with only stray bouncing balls from one end to the other earning and losing the respective teams possession.
The respect of the two defences was clear, with little space to create. However, a Joe Bennett lapse gave in-form forward Tyrese Campbell space to run at the City defence, cutting onto his left and curling wide of the post. Certainly a let-off for Cardiff.
Largely quiet for the first 20 minutes, Harry Wilson had City’s first real shot, cutting in from the right, but blazing a left-footed effort over from 25 yards out.
It was a scrappy first half, living up to the proverbial nature of a wet, windy Tuesday evening at the Potteries, and the first goal certainly lived up to that.
From a recycled free-kick, youngster Campbell found himself running at the Bluebirds defence again, sneaking down the left, breaking into the box, powering a low driven cross into the corridor of uncertainty. A tip from Alex Smithies, which bounced off of the shin of Morrison, nestled into the net for the hosts. A real poachers goal from the captain, though coming at the wrong end.
Just like it had been before the goal, neither team threatened for the remainder of the half. A resolute Stoke defence gave the visitors chances that were few and far between, only causing some trouble on the break a handful of times. Bacuna showed his growing confidence in his unorthodox right back birth, shielding the ball well away from James McClean, who looked to be bearing down on goal, allowing for Smithies to smother well.
With only two shots between the two sides, neither of which were on target, Neil Harris’ side would’ve felt aggrieved to be a goal down going into the interval. However, there was little to show in the first half to suggest the score should be any different.
Halftime: Stoke City 1-0 Cardiff City
As was the trend in the opening 45 minutes, City pressed the hosts, attempting to string passes together, to little avail. Committing men forward, in an attempt to grab an equaliser, they were open on the counter, with a pacey Stoke attack threatening to double their lead.
Arguably, Michael O’Neill’s side should’ve doubled their lead on 50 minutes, with former Wales international James Chester clattering a powerful header against the crossbar, having been left unmarked from a corner.
Morrison’s misery looked to be compiled, bringing a weaving Nick Powell down in the box, leaving referee Tony Harrington little choice but to award a penalty. With Campbell having limped off with an injury, the responsibility was given to veteran striker Sam Vokes. The Welshman, who had given Cardiff fans so many great memories due to his exploits with the international side, looked to put the game out of reach for the Bluebirds, though seeing his effort saved excellently by Smithies.
Stoke would come to rue these missed opportunities, as minutes later, City found themselves level. Searching hard for the equaliser, Harris replaced a quiet Wilson with German striker Robert Glatzel, with Mark Harris shifting out wide. And it was he who came to haunt the Potters, as a poor corner from Ralls was recycled, the No.8’s second attempt at a cross looped towards the back post, evading all but Glatzel, who controlled it superbly, smashing it perfectly into the top corner.
It came as no surprise that the goal lifted the visitors, who were suddenly looking like the Cardiff who had scored 8 in their previous three outings.
Defensively solid, they transitioned into attack seamlessly, Sheyi Ojo showing the dynamism that fans had become accustomed to seeing from his previous performances. The Bluebirds were on the front foot for the first time in the game and were able to do that which their opponents couldn’t – take advantage of their momentum. Another brilliantly lofted ball into the box by Ralls, this time from a corner, found the head of Morrison, who buried the opportunity.
The captain, in a matter of minutes, turned himself from zero to hero – clearly having his wits about him when coming to scoring, no matter which end.
Cardiff expertly saw the remainder of the game out, with a Stoke team looking understandably broken. A woeful Cardiff City performance had been resurrected by a strong final 30 minutes, the Bluebirds flying up the table, a far cry from the position they were in a couple of weeks previously.
With confidence high, and seemingly an ability to win returning, no matter how doggedly, Cardiff are surely now licking their lips at the prospect of the South Wales derby, relishing the opportunity against the enemy down the road. Four wins from four for the flying Bluebirds, scoring 10 and keeping 3 clean sheets in the process, the visitors will look to Saturday as an opportunity to be seen as title contenders once again.
Fulltime: Stoke City 1-2 Cardiff City
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