Into the Valley

Posted by Simon Curtis

Manchester City on The Skids:

The Sky Blues crossed the border into bandit territory and got picked off one by one. All that lovely possession, all those clever little triangles, all the precious, delicate keep-ball. All thwarted by a Cardiff team that drew energy from its frantic crowd, ran itself totally into the ground, played the first half with the simple idea of getting as many bodies between the ball and their own net as they could and ended up with a second half in which they scored a hardly credible three goals, to win 3-2, in a game that was spent mostly chasing the ball and covering those opposing players who had enjoyed long and cherished possession of it.

For a man whose tactics were "defend for you lives and leather it upfield to the willing-limbed Fraser Campbell," Malky Mackay was suspiciously free of sweat stains at the end of this breath-taking encounter. City had the match under control, had taken the lead through Edin Dzeko's wonderfully placed shot and had ended up being beaten by a team of honest and robust artisans, drilled in the methods of chase and harry, perfectionists in the art of punishing slack defence. Campbell's goals both came from Pablo Zabaleta's defensive lapses (on both occasions he appeared to forget to jump), and Javi Garcia lost his man too during the build up to the equaliser and Joe Hart still appeared slightly blinded by the arc lights from his burgeoning off-field product endorsement campaigns.

- Campbell revels in "special" win

One squinted gingerly at the midfield battle featuring David Silva, gliding and shifting pace, dinking and sliding, patting and caressing, up against the triangular-headed Gary Medel, with his nostrils flared, his eyes flashing, a man of lethal dagger-like moves and ceaseless, restless energy. What theatre, what cavorting around. What carnage. Bodies were flying everywhere as Cardiff, backed by a crowd undecided whether to wear red or blue, tore at City with all the means at their disposal. With the away team sheet reading J. Garcia and J. Lescott at the heart of the defence, it would have been rude not to. Quickly, City fans' worries were realised as Lescott fumbled and Garcia was found wanting for pace on the cover. Cardiff's attacks were built on the basic premise that if you run fast and direct and plant the ball into the danger areas, Joleon and Javi might just fall over each other.

In this cauldron of noise, the sun shining brightly, Welsh flags nestling gently alongside messages praising Malaysia's favourite consumer durables, it felt strange to picture previous City visits to this part of the country, all as haplessly ill-fated as this one would turn out to be. The loss in the second division in 1983, when there was so much barbed wire at Ninian Park, they could have shot series three of "Escape from Colditz" in the away end. A cup defeat in 1995, when Nathan Blake's outrageous curler swept past Tony Coton's outstretched finger tips, sucked there by the indefinable thrust of air from 20,000 heaving Welsh breasts. All had been doom and gloom in the land of song and coal. Barbed wire is no longer in Cardiff. There is no uneven, uncovered terracing, no flying bits of masonry to welcome you to the premises but the noise remains, the greeting is still feisty and the locals still know how to stir up a welcome in the hillsides.

With owner Vincent Tan choosing his best high rider pants for the occasion of Cardiff's first top flight game for 51 years, City would have been wise to expect a real test of their early season mettle. The soft shoe shuffle, which bamboozled Newcastle on Monday, was almost totally absent here, replaced by a slow deliberate approach, which choked Jesus Navas of wide possession and played slowly but surely into the eager hands of the massed defensive ranks of the (red)Bluebirds.

If Manuel Pellegrini was lightly surprised by the ease with which City swotted the North East challenge away in Game 1, he will have woken up to reality down in the South West. He will also have learned what Roberto Mancini struggled to come to terms with: how to deal with customers who crowd you out, play all-action, high-energy football and attack any loose defending with a rampant hunger born out of long absence from the giant heavily laden Premier League feeding trough.

Whether this hardens the manager's resolve to look into defensive replacements or even a last gasp dash for another keeper (David Platt was reported said he and Roberto Mancini had decided to replace Hart with Stoke's Asimir Begovic this summer before they had the Etihad carpet whisked from under their feet) or not is unclear at this stage. It is far too early to hit the panic button after all, despite Lescott and Garcia doing just that on Sunday.

City may well have been deceived and then punctured as they entered the Valleys, but time will heal these early scars and Hull City will provide an excellent opportunity on Saturday to show that the Newcastle performance was closer to what we can expect from this nascent 20013-14 season than any helter-skelter defeat in Wales.

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