Sometimes you get what you deserve. Today we really didn't. Everyone at the ground knows how the script should have ended; and if Vetokele had put away the one-on-one with the last meaningful kick of the game - as we all believed he would - Cardiff could have had no complaints. They might say that they controlled the first half, which they did, and led quite comfortably at the break. But after we changed formation not long into the second there was only one team in it. Cardiff ended up paying for their total lack of ambition against 10 men, not winning a game that seemed to be theirs for the taking. They should be grateful for a point, one they did not deserve (even passing over their disgracefully unpunished timewasting and unlovely long-throw tactic).
The fact is that against 10 men in the second half they failed to fashion a decent attempt on goal and bizzarely seemed to sit back, content to defend their lead despite regularly giving up chances. If I was a Cardiff fan I would be furious with their second-half display. We hit the woodwork twice, had two cleared off the line, forced some decent saves from their keeper, were denied a levelling up of the numbers by a poor refereeing decision (in keeping with his general performance, which was lamentable), and then had that golden opportunity at the end. Peeters deserves plaudits for the change in formation, which basically transformed us from plodding to defeat to all but grabbing a famous win, as do the players for their character and commitment, with a display that veered between the adventurous and the totally gung-ho, with all three centre-halves getting forward. Sure, we had nothing to lose, but with a bit more daring in the play than usual we carved out enough opportunities to have won with something to spare.
Let's start at the beginning. The team news was surprising, with Pope dropped for the on-loan Etheridge, Fox left on the bench with Solly taking that place and Gomez the other full-back, Ben Haim and Bikey-Amougou of course in central defence, Jackson and Buyens holding down the central midfield spots, Cousins and Gudmundsson out wide, and Tucudean coming in to partner Harriott up front, with Vetokele dropping to the bench (whether for a rest or a knock I don't know). It was a basic 4-4-2 - and either side of Harriott's red card it didn't work.
Basically through the first half Cardiff won the battles in the key areas. They pretty much ran midfield while we struggled to get anything going down the flanks, while the front two were out-muscled and failed to provide an outlet. We could knock it around in our half but little more.
Cardiff took the lead with depressing simplicity, albeit with some controversy. A ball was played forward to a guy seemingly in an offside position; I can't be entirely sure as I was replying to a text at the time, but everyone around me (and we are more or less in line) was in no doubt and it was evident that the linesman had not kept up with play. No flag and the ball went out for a corner (or a throw-in near the flag; given their long-throw tactics it made no difference). The ball in was flicked on at the near post and their guy got first to the ball to head it back across Etheridge into the net. The same ploy almost worked again shortly afterwards but this time the loose ball was fired over the bar.
Cardiff seemed content to play at pretty much one-pace and to rely on loading it into the box. That threat seemed to fade, with Etheridge coming off his line to good effect, both to catch and punch clear well. But they were very comfortable, a sense of ease compounded by Harriott's dismissal. It was one of those loose balls and a perhaps rash, certainly impetuous, challenge. We know there's no malice in him and there was no intent, but it might have been a red - and when you see the ref sprinting towards him reaching for his pocket you pretty much know the outcome. At the time it seemed to make an already very difficult task all but impossible.
At the break all I remember of a threat from us was a decent turn in the box by Harriott but the low cross not finding anyone, a surprise shot from a tight angle from Tucudean which their keeper parried, and the one decent chance that probably should have got us level, with Ben Haim intercepting well and taking the ball all the way into their box, turning one defender and then instead of shooting opting to slide it to the left to Tucudean, only to put too much on the pass. And when the second half started in similar fashion you felt that a second for Cardiff and it would have been curtains. That they failed to really try to press home their advantage was, from their perspective, criminal.
The changes came around the hour. Gomez was sacrificed and Jackson went off with him, with Vetokele and Onyewu coming on. We switched to three at the back, with Solly and Cousins effectively becoming wing-backs, Gudmundsson going inside, and two up front, a sort of 3-4-2 or 5-2-2. After that, at times it was more like a 0-4-5. The change really worked like a treat. We controlled the ball and passed it better, Tucudean and Gudmundsson both came much more into the game, and Buyens stepped up. Cardiff seemed unable to deal with it, especially as the centre-backs were comfortable to advance with or without the ball. They seemed content to sit back and despite acres of space in our half rarely threatened to exploit it.
The chances started to come. Tucudean almost converted a corner, only for the ball to clip the outside of the post. The details of how two were cleared off the line and the saves their keeper made are beyond my powers of recollection, then Tucudean was sent clear only to be pulled back. There wasn't a great deal of contact but it was clearly a foul, there was another defender not far away but I doubt that he would have got to Tucudean before he was in a position to get a shot away. It denied a goal-scoring opportunity and should have been punished with a red, not the yellow shown. From the resulting free-kick Gudmundsson's effort cleared the wall and left their keeper stranded only to hit the same outside of the post that Tucudean's effort had.
As the clock ticked down, and the ref went through his pantomime act (occasionally talking to someone for timewasting but doing nothing when each throw-in for them saw them clean it religiously, giving fouls when players/fans appealed, sometimes applying an advantage then bringing things back etc) there was a building sense of injustice. But before the clock reached 90 Gudmunsson was allowed to turn with the ball and line up the shot. This time it proved to be a screamer into the top corner.
Going into four minutes of stoppage time suddenly we weren't sure whether now to take our own time or to go for the win. Whatever, the ball was played forward to I think Tucudean who played in Vetokele running on. He was in the clear and just the keeper to beat. But his first touch wasn't great and he didn't seemed to settle. While his decision to loft it over the advancing keeper may have been good, he really failed to control the ball and it sailed over the bar. Add in Tucudean not scoring the winner against Millwall, Ipswich's winner, Blackpool's equaliser, now this, stoppage time at The Valley has not been kind to us (collectively seven points gone begging). Igor was distraught, the fans quite rightly sang his name, and all that was left was to applaud the players off the pitch.
If there's something deeper to take from the game it's perhaps that when we became less cautious in the second half we were a real threat. Getting that balance right is a task for Peeters. And if there's any real justice tonight the ref will have a very dodgy ruby that might convince him that his contribution to the game was well below par.
Player Ratings (which would have been very different at half-time):
Etheridge - 8/10. No chance with the goal and otherwise was very instrumental in negating their threat from set-pieces; Pope may well have a great future but I suspect he would have struggled today with their threat in the air.
Gomez - 7/10. No complaints, he had to be sacrificed to change the formation and can't shoulder much of the blame for our first-half impotence.
Solly - 8/10. Filled in well enough at left-back then played his part getting forward down the right to good effect.
Ben-Haim - 8/10. He and Bikey dealt very well with the threat of Jones, read the game to intercept, and proved adept at carrying the ball forward.
Bikey-Amougou: 8/10. One or two rather clumsy challenges but generally commanding and an inspiration; have to mention some superb passes to spread the play.
Cousins - 7/10. Ineffective first half like many others, but played his part in the turnaround. No decisive contribution but kept the left side working.
Jackson - 6/10. Perhaps an unfair mark as he was unable to benefit from our change of formation, but in the first half he and Buyens struggled.
Buyens - 7/10. He too would have had a poor mark at the break, but he stepped up thereafter.
Gudmundsson - 7/10. Almost an 8 given the goal, but he too was below par through the first half.
Tucudean - 7/10. Much more effective when not having to try to win balls in the air against stronger centre-backs. On another day might have scored a couple.
Harriott - 6/10. I'm not going to give him a very poor rating for one rash tackle. He had caused a problem or two in that flat first half.
Subs - Onyewu (8/10 - slotted in very well); Vetokele (7/10 - but he and the rest of us know it was almost a 9).