Leeds United endured another miserable afternoon in South Wales as they made it 28 years without a win against Cardiff City, sliding to a 2-1 defeat on Saturday afternoon.
The difference between the two sides was the ability to introduce pace and quality from the bench, both of those attributes wrapped up in the form of Craig Bellamy. On a reported £35K a week, it’s a wage Neil Warnock can only dream of being able to pay , and within moments of his introduction the Welsh international showed his class by scoring a stunning free kick to breakthrough a stubborn Leeds rearguard and break open the game.
In stark contrast, Leeds lost their one real quality player in the first five minutes, Ross McCormack stretchered off with an ankle injury which threatens to rule the Scottish international out for several weeks. Neil Warnock must have looked at this bench and bemoaned the lack of creativity on offer to him as his game plan was shot before it had a chance to take effect.
It was a bold side that Warnock had sent out, making three changes from the team which had drawn 3-3 with Blackburn two weeks ago. He looked to attack Cardiff down the flanks with pace and youthful vitality, bringing in Aidy White and Sam Byram to replace El-Hadji Diouf and Luke Varney.
Varney was back in action almost immediately, as a replacement for the stricken McCormack, given a chance to play as a striker after his recent ineffective displays in a wide position. Unfortunately for the Whites, he was unable to take his chance, another disappointing display from the ex Portsmouth man infuriating the travelling support.
McCormack had been felled by a heavy challenge by Jordan Mutch, a tackle which went unpunished by referee Paul Tierney. It would be a feature of the day as another inconsistent refereeing performance undermined United’s efforts, with challenges by both sides being treated differently by the man in Black.
The opening exchanges were poor, with neither side showing any real attacking quality. Leeds best player was the latest product off the Academy production line, Sam Byram once again adding to his burgeoning reputation with an all action display. Strong in the challenge and powerful in the air, he was United’s outlet ball, but was lacking in any support to capitalise on his efforts, with Becchio and Varney both making similar runs into the wrong areas, not looking to pick up the pieces of Byram’s work.
The game meandered along with neither goalkeeper being made to work, the Leeds fans doing their best to lift the funereal atmosphere by constantly backing the team, whilst poking fun at the Welsh clubs change of colours during the close season. A long and heartfelt tribute to United’s Welsh legend Gary Speed was appreciated by the Cardiff fans who joined in with the chorus of “Stand Up for Gary Speed.”
On the field, Mr Tierney was also doing his best to spark some life into the game. Allowing Jordan Mutch to escape unpunished again, this time for a knee high studs up challenge on Lee Peltier, he then infuriated the Leeds fans by booking Rodolph Austin for an innocuous challenge on Nicky Maynard, a transfer target for United in the summer. Minutes later, Tommy Smith showed his frustration at being dispossessed by the hard working Byram, by kicking the youngster up in the air with a horrendous late challenge, escaping with a booking when a red card looked a certainty.
The second half saw Leeds forced into another change, Adam Drury being replaced by Diouf. This saw White move to left back, but crucially there was nobody who looked to take responsibility for playing on the left of midfield. Either Varney or Diouf were not asked to fulfil that role, or neither of them had the discipline to undertake the role. This allowed Cardiff free reign to attack down the right, and they took full opportunity to go at the now exposed White.
Paddy Kenny was forced into his first real save of the game on 48 minutes, getting down sharply to grasp an effort by Maynard. It was the start of a real period of pressure from the home side who smelt blood and were determined to move in for the kill. Leeds defended manfully in the centre, Jason Pearce once again outstanding, and it restricted Cardiff to shooting from long range, their efforts unable to find the target.
Kenny was forced into action again on 58 minutes to deny Tommy Smith, another target of Warnock in the summer, who was far and away Cardiff’s most impressive performer.
Malky McKay had seen enough and decided with 25 minutes remaining that the time was right to play his trump card., introducing Bellamy for Craig Noone. It was a move which finally woke the Cardiff fans from their slumber, and the team responded. Whittingham played in a corner which was met by his skipper Mark Hudson, the centre back’s header superbly saved by Kenny, diving to his left to hold the ball.
A minute later Maynard was blocked off 20 yards out from goal by debutant Michael Tonge, a challenge deemed worthy of a yellow card. With Leeds expecting a cross, Bellamy surprised everyone by rifling a superb shot across Kenny and into the top corner of the net for a majestic opening goal.
Five minute later Maynard again caused problems, battling past Tom Lees into the area and going down as the new England U21 international brushed his hip. It did look a penalty, and Mr Tierney had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Whittingham calmly stroked home the spot kick, sending Kenny the wrong way and doubling Cardiff’s lead.
The United faithful feared the worst, but like the Blackburn game, the two goal deficit seemed to spark them into life. This Leeds team don’t capitulate and tried their hardest to fight their way back into the game.
With 13 minutes remaining, United won a free kick 35 yards out. Up stepped Austin and he drilled a low powerful effort which surprised David Marshall in the Cardiff goal, the ball fizzing past him into the back of the net.
With hope renewed the Leeds faithful roared their team on, and Neil Warnock threw on youngster Dominic Poleon for the woeful Varney. With three minutes remaining United should have levelled it from their only real piece of quality football in the game. Diouf got in down the right hand side and clipped over a superb cross which found Peltier unmarked eight yards out. Unfortunately the Leeds skipper was unable to direct his header, powering it just over the bar, to the dismay of the 1800 United fans in the corner of the ground.
With five minutes stoppage time added Leeds will have felt they had a chance, but their hopes were extinguished by blatant gamesmanship by the Cardiff players, who stayed down after every single challenge, the physio covering more yards than the players in the closing moments.
A second away defeat to a team looking to be in the promotion shake up is no disgrace, but if United are to be challengers themselves then improvements have to be made. The side as a whole lack real pace and quality, and hard work, which to be fair the team have in abundance, will only get you so far. Whether the clubs hierarchy have the resources, or more importantly the inclination, to improve the team is the $64,000 question. Once again events off the field are tantamount to improvement on it.