Coming off the back of a gutless South Wales derby performance, the Bluebirds returned to the Cardiff City Stadium to face a struggling Birmingham City team. Having held his hands up following the 2-0 defeat to bitter rivals Swansea, Neil Harris once again had many questions to answer. Why not change formation to suit the opposition? How will Cardiff bounce back from such a torrid display? Will Glatzel be able to step into the void left by in-form Moore? Fans hoped that the answers lay in wait.
Though winning their previous four before the home defeat, Cardiff had only shown their ruthlessness and potential swagger against strugglers Luton and Barnsley this season, having to grind out victories away against the likes of Watford and Stoke.
Birmingham are a team in transition, to use that tired trope. Under Karanka, the Blues had managed victories over once league-leaders Reading and promotion favourites Brentford, but, in that same period, had slumped to dire defeats against strugglers Wycombe and Barnsley. Cardiff, looking for post-derby redemption, would view this matchup as the perfect opportunity for another resounding victory, the Bluebirds had won five of their last seven home games against the West Midlands outfit, going back to a 2-1 defeat in the 2008/09 season.
Wholesale changes were expected from Harris, with Kieffer Moore expected to be absent until late January due to a hamstring tear, and midfield mainstay Joe Ralls missing through suspension. With the opportunity presenting itself to stand up and be counted, Gavin Whyte and Robert Glatzel were handed their first starts of the season, as Marlon Pack slotted into midfield alongside Will Vaulks.
Having already given academy graduate Mark Harris his first-team chance, the gaffer named three more uncapped academy players on the bench; winger Kieron Evans, who scored a brace against Newport County earlier this month, 18-year-old forward Chanka Zimba, and ball-playing Welshman Keenan Patten. The injury crisis at City has brought the opportunity for youth to show their meddle, a silver-lining amongst the woe.
Visitors Birmingham made four changes themselves, Pedersen missing through suspension, with Gardner, Cogley, and San Jose all dropped to the bench. Striker Jutkiewicz started again, hoping for better fortune against a team he had only scored twice against in his previous 11 appearances. Former Cardiff keeper Neil Etheridge would want his return to South Wales to be a successful one.
The trend of lethargic starts to City games seemed to continue, the visiting Blues having the first sight of goal through Iván Sánchez, the wide-man stinging the hands of Smithies from distance.
Spurred on from this early scare, Cardiff sprung into life, pressing from the onset. This heavy pressure continued, Gavin Whyte stealing the ball from the Birmingham defence, and delivering a delightful ball to the head of Harry Wilson, who’s effort narrowly crept passed the post.
However, Cardiff looked to have successfully shaken the cobwebs from their weekend woes, the high-press troubling the visitors again, as Harry Wilson pounced on a loose ball, drove towards goal, and teed up Robert Glatzel, who smashed it into the net. The German has now scored 3 goals in his last 5 appearances.
A hard-fought first half, referee Michael Salisbury was clearly in the festive spirit, being quick to hand out cards, with both Toral and Bacuna going into the book for poor challenges.
Though growing in confidence, Birmingham did little to trouble Smithies in net, with only a few long-distanced efforts to show for their majority possession. The best came on 29 minutes from veteran midfielder Kieftenbeld, who volleyed over the bar from 35 yards out.
The visitors dominance on the ball began to pay off, carving out opportunities to punish the timid Bluebirds defence. Unable to deal with a lose corner ball, striker Jutkiewicz nodded it down to Roberts on the edge of the City area, the centre-half juked, drilling the ball into the bottom left corner. A finish any striker would be proud of.
Cardiff again pressed, searching for a second, although to no avail. Calls for a handball in the box fell on deaf ears, and a Pack strike was dealt with well, with nothing to differentiate the sides going into the interval.
Halftime: Cardiff City 1-1 Birmingham City
Looking to start the second-half much the same as the first, Will Vaulks saw two volleys sail over, testing his luck from distance but unable to trouble the returning Etheridge.
Sánchez had been testing City fullback Bennett down the left flank, the Englishman seeming low on confidence recently, was easily beaten again. The Spanish winger cut inside from the right, ran at the defence, before hammering an effort into the top corner. A superb solo effort, that really highlighted the defensive issues of an experienced backline.
Harris made his first change in the 63rd minute, his namesake Mark replacing Gavin Whyte, who, other than the first 10 minutes, had been largely quiet and unable to stamp his authority on the game, an opportunity to break into the first team.
The introduction of the young Welshman changed the dynamic of the game, with a change of shape, came a change of attacking threat. Wilson saw his effort saved well by Etheridge, before Morrison struck the post with a header and Glatzel’s follow-up strike deflecting wide.
The best chance of the half came a few minutes later, as Clarke-Salter was adjudged to have handled the ball in the box. Glatzel stepped up confidently, however the powerful strike was met well by Etheridge, the keeper showing Cardiff once again his incredible penalty saving prowess.
As hope began to fade for the Bluebirds, with their search for an equaliser not coming to fruition thus far, a moment of magic between Pack and Wilson squared things up. Pack split the Blues defence with a sublime pass, Wilson latched onto it, holding off the fullback, and slotting passed Etheridge with no mistake, at a tight angle.
The Blues weren’t down and out, an expert save from Smithies the only thing denying Sánchez from his second of the evening. However, the drama hadn’t finished yet, as City pushed for the winner.
A final flourish came from Cardiff, as a wonderfully whipped Wilson corner found skipper Morrison at the back post, unmarked, who made no mistake of the opportunity, stepping up with a captain’s goal, and netting the winner.
After their awful derby performance, Cardiff had answered some of the questions raised. Although not convincing, the fifth win in six games is not to be sniffed at, and, if they’re to reestablish a promotion push, winning games ugly is needed. Cardiff will need to have that tough to beat demeanor when they face Norwich next.
Fulltime: Cardiff City 3-2 Birmingham City
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