After the madness of Hull came a victory that was much needed and looked, certainly during the first half, as though it might be a formality on Easter Monday.
However, part of the appeal of this crazy season is that Sunderland seldom do things the easy way and after ninety minutes in South Wales, there’s a chance that many supporters might’ve aged by twenty years.
Pre-match, it’s fair to say that Tony Mowbray raised some eyebrows with his team selection, opting for a starting eleven without the likes of Joe Gelhardt, Patrick Roberts and Edouard Michut, and bringing Dennis Cirkin and Abdoullah Ba back into the fold.
It was also interesting and encouraging to see Pierre Ekwah keeping his place following the sour ending to Friday’s game against Hull, and barely three days after such an exhilarating game, perhaps the changes weren’t entirely surprising.
For Cardiff, the ‘ex-Sunderland player’ factor was at play with Connor Wickham lining up for the Bluebirds and from a red and white perspective, what we needed to see was a performance more akin to our efforts at Turf Moor, as opposed to how we played on Good Friday.
The first half began in fairly cagey fashion, with the Lads seeing a decent amount of the ball and Amad winning an early foul on the right, but the subsequent free kick coming to nothing, and Dan Neil drawing a foul from Wickham after neatly dispossessing him on the halfway line.
We certainly looked a lot calmer than we had against Hull, and a good run into the box from Jack Clarke was an early sign of our intent before Neil’s long range shot was easily blocked. That was followed by an incisive pass into the box from Ekwah that Alex Pritchard was unable to make the most of.
Another good move saw Lynden Gooch raiding down the right but his cross was cut out by Mark McGuinness. Minutes later, Ekwah’s ambitious strike from the edge of the box was high and wide.
The game was being played at less than breakneck pace, and it seemed as though Cardiff were content for us to dominate possession and try and maximise any openings that came their way.
Indeed, we were playing some good, positive football but were just unable to find the final touch or the killer pass, and some wayward shooting wasn’t helping, either.
On the half hour mark, Gooch took another shot from the edge of the box that McGuinness was able to deflect for a corner, from which Danny Batth’s subsequent header was off target.
There was more frustration to come, when Clarke’s header nestled into the net after a well-timed run and superb cross from Pritchard, but he was wrongly denied a goal by the linesman’s flag.
0-0 at half time, and was it going to be another one of those days?
As the second half began and Wickham made his exit, there was an early scare when Anthony Patterson had to palm away a shot from Kion Etete after some slack defensive play. That was followed by a flurry of Cardiff corners that we were eventually able to deal with.
The home team had started brightly and we needed to keep it tight as the crowd sensed a way back into the game, but as the hour mark approached, a menacing run from Clarke was crudely ended by Perry Ng, and from it, the goal finally came.
Pritchard’s wicked delivery wasn’t dealt with by Ryan Allsop, and Cirkin was there for the simplest of finishes as the ball broke to him.
1-0, huge relief, and ecstasy for the travelling fans behind the goal. Now, the test was for us to ensure that we didn’t let it slip, and it was sure to be nervy.
Cardiff turned up the heat immediately and we seemed to make the mistake of sitting back and inviting them on to us. Suddenly, we were struggling to retain possession and the assertiveness that had previously defined our plan had given way to familiar hesitancy.
At seventy minutes, Mowbray made a double change as Roberts and Michut came on, and suddenly, the game was looking ever more tense with fifteen minutes to play, particularly as we didn’t quite have the same level of control in midfield.
Gelhardt soon entered the fray for Pritchard and the Leeds loanee had a chance to make the game safe, but in familiarly frustrating style, he dithered when shooting first time would’ve been the better option.
Cardiff didn’t give up the fight, but their crosses into the box were dealt with by, among others, Batth, who stood firm at the heart of the away defence.
Ultimately, we did enough to secure the win and to keep our playoff aspirations alive. Results elsewhere favoured us, and we upheld our end of the bargain.
It was far more fraught than it perhaps might’ve been, but with five games left, the season remains alive and kicking, and Birmingham on Saturday is now looking like an absolutely pivotal game as this crazy season heads toward its conclusion.