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Cardiff City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship

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Talking Points: We’re just four points off the playoffs with five games to go - can we do it?

All of the talking points from a determined win on the road in Cardiff

Photo by Ian horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Interesting team selection

There was a lot of chatter on social media and across the fanbase when the team sheet came up at 2pm. With Luke O’Nien unavailable due to personal circumstances, there were changes expected in the rear guard, but when the Lads ran out with Hume and Batth as central defenders fringed by Gooch and Cirkin out wide, more questions than answers rattled around the brains of supporters and pundits alike.

In the middle of the park we also saw changes, with Ba coming in for Michut alongside both Neil and Ekwah. Pritchard was reinstated to the starting eleven at the top of the pitch with Amad and Clarke, at the cost of Paddy Roberts who dropped to the bench.

Cardiff City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images

As it turned out, the team selection and shape/tactics validated themselves from the off, as the lads played very well and dominated things massively across the first 45. Opportunities for Cardiff in the first half were very much few and far between, and when they did fall to the welsh outfit, they weren’t very well taken advantage of.

Something had to change looking back to Hull, and on reflection, the changes made by the gaffer and the way the plan was executed were both a credit to the coach and his team.

A strong first half, but one not very well capitalised on

The first half was very frustrating for the Lads and us fans, with chance after chance being spurned as Cardiff sat as far back as anyone has this season, and challenged us to break them down.

Gooch played well early on, showing he was instructed to bomb forward when we had the ball, especially given Clarke was a lot of the time double-teamed. The midfield and attacking players seemed to be queuing up for chance after chance, with Pritchard being blocked out, Ekwah skying one from 20 yards when he had loads of time, and Batth heading one overall in the first half hour or so.

Just after that point, I found myself screaming at the players to shoot, as Amad and Pritchard demonstrated incredible control and touch while both refused to put their foot through the ball to strike towards goal. This wasn’t a trend exclusive to the first half either... we desperately needed a striking natural to convert the raft of chances we carved out across the whole match.

Cardiff City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

We did score one goal in the first half, but it was ruled out for offside, with replays showing it was by the tightest of margins if it was indeed offside at all. A shame, as it was a great cross and a lovely headed finish by Jack Clarke.

After a half where rounds of “Ole” would not have been misplaced as the Lads played with flair and confidence, we entered half time with nothing to show for our dominance, and I was very worried whether this was going to be one of those days.

Yet again, a ref who didn't make sense a lot of the time

I noted down from around the 40th minute that this referee was once again below the standard that people should expect at this level. Around the 42nd minute, Jack Clarke once again evaded his marker and was nothing short of hacked down, with nothing close to contact on the ball. The ref did nothing.

Around a minute later, a way less significant foul was committed, if it was a foul at all, and the ref blew up and gave a free kick to Cardiff.

It is beginning to become tedious saying this in items like this, but games like this 1-0 away win can easily be turned into draws or even losses to the more likely victorious sides due to poor and inconsistent decision-making by the team all in black.

Cardiff City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Either side of the half time break the ref was frankly awful, and all those hopes I had for better officials when we ascended back to the second tier are slowly drifting into the distance, as far away as they were in League One. Maybe Tony can start trying to persuade them with choccies. Something needs to happen.

Thankfully on this occasion we prevailed and got all three points, but the awarding of yellow cards for the amount of fouls, the offside decision and the general overseeing of play were all awful at times in Cardiff.

The sooner the league do something to sort this out the better for all teams and all fans.

Cardiff changes made a difference, but they still deserved very little

I cannot recall the last time I saw a team make so many subs so soon, and clearly Lamouchi recognised about half an hour in that he had messed up in terms of selection and shape.

Cardiff improved with the changes, and in the early period of the second half they had a bit of a go which was nice to see given the position they are in and what is on the line here for them - clearly way more than for us.

Burnley v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - Turf Moor Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images

While they did create the odd chance before the break, such as the free header they put straight at Patterson on around 40 minutes, they were way more of a threat (despite still being a pretty ineffective one) after oranges. Just before the 50th minute the ball dropped to the Cardiff forward after a deflection, but the shot he made was saved and we cleared well. In the 68th minute a header was again dropped directly into Patterson’s hands when scoring seemed easier to achieve.

Across the 90 minutes, we clearly deserved to win that game and with an on-form striker on the pitch we would have done so by a good handful of goals.

Never mind. We take the three points and move on.

Game management was much improved

One of the biggest successes for me reflecting on this game was the game management.

We battled away and did not lose our rag despite both the referee and the opposition doing their best to frustrate us. We more than deserved the goal which Cirkin scored from a set piece just before the hour, after a free kick from Pritchard was saved but was parried into Dennis’ path. This lad is clearly someone who loves to score, as he proved yesterday and a few weeks ago when he went for that header, a goal that ended up concussing him for some games to come. Great to have him back.

From about the 78th minute when Cardiff headed a chance over rather than on target and right into stoppage time, Cardiff’s emptying of the bench and sudden interest in getting something from the match proved a bit of a test for the Lads.

Cardiff City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images

Up to about the end of normal time the lads really had to defend steadfastly, including avoiding another potential penalty shout in the 88th minute when it could easily have been said that both the Sunderland and Cardiff players may have contacted the ball with an arm.

While we still created opportunities to get a second, which probably would have been scored if the pass between Gelhardt and Amad had not been slightly over hit three minutes into added time, we ran the clock down well and protected the slender lead we had very well.

A big thumbs up from me as comparing this game management to the carnival of sloppy defending at home to Hull was like chalk and cheese.

Playoffs done and dusted?

It was great to get a win again, and to continue to show teams that we can take them on and succeed away from the north east, even with the significant injuries we have.

The result leaves us in tenth place, only four points behind both Millwall and Blackburn, but having played one game more than the Rovers. Interestingly though, neither of these teams have managed to win in their last three games. For Millwall it’s no wins and only two draws in the last four games. Signs of a wobble? We hope so.

With the fixtures we have coming up against Birmingham and Huddersfield (both who drew on Monday), I think we are still in this. All we can do is win against who is in front of us, and see how it pans out, but Monday’s result keeps us in the hunt as an outside chance for me.

A fantastic position to be in with five games of this first campaign back at the second level for a good five years or so.

Keep it up, Sunderland. We’re loving it.

Cardiff City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images

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