For so much of this season, Cardiff City’s promotion to the Premier League has had a feeling of the inevitable about it. Perhaps it was the arrival of Craig Bellamy on loan from Manchester City at the start of the season. Bellamy has matured with age, and had the feel of being a player around which Dave Jones could build a team capable of getting back into the top division of English football for the first time in half a century. In the league, however, Cardiff were edged out of the automatic promotion places in their penultimate league match of the season, a home defeat at the hands of Middlesbrough that radiated shell-shock out from The Cardiff City Stadium to the audience watching at home.
The media, meanwhile, is salivating at the possibility of a South Wales derby match being played out at Wembley on the very last day of the domestic season, after Swansea City booked their place in the final with a win against Nottingham Forest. Setting aside the chaos that could be inflicted upon the M4 on a Bank Holiday Monday, any element of presumption regarding this fixture being played out rather overlooks one significant factor: Reading FC. True enough, Cardiff go into this evening’s second leg with home advantage and, arguably, the feeling that they may be the favourites after a drab goalless draw at the end of last week, but that would be to overlook the home side’s propensity for self-destruction.
By half-time, their chances of making it to Wembley lay in tatters, with the lackadaisical defending that slipped the promotion run-in so suddenly on its head having handed Reading a two goal lead. It’s not that Cardiff had been playing badly prior to the two Reading goals. They had a couple of quarter-shouts for penalties waved away by referee Howard Webb – on other days they might conceivably both have been given, but the slow motion replays seem to confirm that the decisions not to award them was probably correct – but two moments of ill judgement help Reading to put one leg in the final. With ten minutes left to play of the first half, a long ball over the top seems to leave the Cardiff defence flat-footed. As Shane Long chases the ball through, the Cardiff goalkeeper Stephen Bywater rushes from his goal but his attempt at a clearance is hopelessly miscued, allowing Long to charge the ball and lift the ball over, and into the empty goal.
The goal deflates Cardiff and The Cardiff City Stadium, and a minute from half-time their evening goes from bad to worse. Defending a corner on the right-hand side at a time that they might want to be pushing for an equaliser is not an ideal situation to be in, but their night goes from bad to worse when Decal Keinan grabs hold of Matt Mills’ arm as the kick is taken. It’s a silly, needless grab and Webb is left with no alternative but to point at the spot. Long, with the sort of calmness that may stand Reading in good stead no matter which division they end up playing in next season, sends Bywater the wrong way from the penalty spot to put the match more or less beyond Cardiff City with forty-five minutes left to play.
Cardiff improve in the second half and pepper the Reading goal with shots, with Emmanuel-Thomas and Olofinjana coming close, and this encouraging spell lifts the crowd, who are now peering at the game through pouring rain. Reading, though, are still a threat on the break and almost kill the game when a cross from the left is deflected off a defender up into the midriff of Noel Hunt and out off the Cardiff post. It’s a rare lucky break for Cardiff. They’re still not getting the rub of the green with the important refereeing decisions, such as Jay Bothroyd chasing a long ball down, only for the Reading goalkeeper Adam Federici to apear to handle the ball well outside of his penalty area before belting it to safety and, with five minutes left to play, all remaining semblance of this match as a competition is killed off once and for all, as Jobi McEnuff hops, skips and jumps past two defenders before placing the ball tidily past Bywater for goal number three.
Cardiff City, then, were undone this evening. They played reasonably well for periods of the game, but didn’t take their chances and made crucial mistakes to make their job almost impossible before they could properly get into gear. Reading, on the other hand, were everything that Cardiff weren’t this evening – reasonably well-organised defensively and not prone to having any little accidents, clinical in taking their chances and, perhaps, a little fortuitous with refereeing decisions. Still, though, this was an excellent performance from them this evening and they deserve their place in the final against Swansea City in a couple of weeks’ time. Cardiff City, meanwhile, have another season in the Championship to look forward to next season. Their accession into the Premier League, it turned out, wasn’t as inevitable as they might have thought it was at times throughout this season.
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