By John Jones at the Cardiff City Stadium
After a day of dazzling sunshine in the Welsh capital, Cardiff City were hoping for similarly brighter fortunes on the pitch as they took on Everton in a home Premier League clash.
With his side’s humiliating 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Watford four days earlier still fresh in Neil Warnock’s mind, the Bluebirds boss made five attacking changes to his starting line-up, with Kenneth Zohore leading the line in place of Everton loanee Oumar Niasse.
Victor Camarasa was again a notable absence from Cardiff’s matchday squad, after the midfielder, nursing a calf problem, declared himself injured on the advice of his personal medical staff. “He obviously listens to his physios, his medical people and Tom, Dick and Harry from abroad” a frustrated Warnock remarked on Monday. “He’s a very important player for us and it’s been a really big disappointment”.
Toffees boss Marco Silva – under increasing pressure following his side’s three successive Premier League defeats – also made five changes, with Phil Jagielka making his first start since being sent off on the opening weekend of the season, and Morgan Schneiderlin re-entering the fold for the first time since October.
In the opening minutes, it was Warnock’s changes who seemed the most lively, as, inside two minutes, Zohore beat the offside trap from the left, before firing a threatening ball across the Everton six-yard box, forcing Lucas Digne to clear.
Indeed, in the early passages, Cardiff looked fired up, pressing their opponents high up the field and closing down balls, clearly keen to make amends for Friday night’s horror show.
It is possible that this enthusiasm got the better of the Bluebirds, however, as Leandro Bacuna was shown an early yellow card for a rash challenge on Richarlison, before skipper Sean Morrison joined him in the book minutes later, after going in late on Calvert-Lewin.
Perhaps a little surprised by the Bluebirds’ pressure out of the blocks, Everton began to grow in confidence, keeping possession well, before Idrissa Gueye struck a speculative effort from 25 yards, which was blocked by a resilient Cardiff defence.
Despite the constant threat posed by the nippy Seamus Coleman down the right hand side, the blue wall refused to crumble, dealing with the Irishman’s searching crosses into the box with a degree of competence.
However, as the half progressed, it became clear that momentum lay firmly with the Merseyside club, who comfortably controlled possession and threatened the Cardiff box, whilst the Bluebirds’ early spirit was beginning to wane, as they looked seriously overrun in midfield without Camarasa.
Cardiff saw contentious first-half decisions given against them by referee Kevin Friend, and the home fans must have feared a repeat of Friday night’s controversy, but it was often their own players who caused the problems, with a shaky Gunnarsson sending an attempted pass out of play under little pressure.
The Iceland captain nearly redeemed himself minutes later as he fed a smart pass into the area for Zohore, but the striker was off target with his attempt after controlling the ball neatly.
In fact, the first-half only saw one shot on target, and it came courtesy of a familiar foe for the Bluebirds, four minutes before the break.
After again failing to deal with Coleman in the final third, Cardiff gave the right-back enough space to cut the ball back across the penalty area and find former Swansea star Gylfi Sigurdsson, who fired into the bottom corner for his second goal against the Bluebirds this season.
The mood in the Cardiff City Stadium fell flat for the remainder of the half, and Everton happily went into the break as deserved 1-0 leaders, having commanded 70% of possession.
However, against expectations, the home side started a hugely important second-half brightly, competing for the ball and looking threatening on the counter-attack, with Nathaniel Mendez-Laing’s attempted breakaway only thwarted by a cynical foul from Digne, who was rightfully booked.
Gunnarsson’s long throws posed a threat to the Everton defence, with the Bluebirds flooding the visitor’s box, but Pickford’s impressive distribution put a sluggish Cardiff defence under pressure on the counter, particularly with the rapid Richarlison and Walcott in pursuit.
Zohore, easily Cardiff’s best player in what was a poor team performance, threatened to create an equaliser as he evaded Michael Keane with ease on the left side and stormed into the box, but his hopeful ball across goal could not find a blue shirt.
Whilst they continued to fail to deliver the essential final product, Cardiff were greatly improved from their first half-performance, and the fans responded accordingly, roaring their team forward whenever they regained possession.
However, just as Cardiff looked like they could still get something from the game, another killer blow from Sigurdsson put the game beyond all reasonable doubt.
Substitute Bernard, who had replaced Richarlison minutes earlier, made an instant impact, as he left a lethargic Manga in his wake and fired a stinging ball across goal, which Neil Etheridge could only parry. The rebound fell to the Icelander, who caught it cleanly to blast the ball into the Cardiff net.
With only their fourth win in their last 12 league games now seemingly on the cards, Everton’s confidence grew further, with Calvert-Lewin backing himself from distance, only to see his shot go wide of the left post.
Cardiff, however, were desperate, with Warnock throwing on Callum Paterson and Josh Murphy for Mendez-Laing and a woeful Junior Hoilett, before Gunnarsson once again summed up Cardiff’s frustration by firing a wild strike closer to the corner flag than Pickford’s goal.
The home fans had seen enough, and began to head for the exits as the game entered its final ten minutes, but Everton were quite not finished yet.
Picking the ball up just inside his own half, Idrissa Gueye nonchalantly poked the ball between the legs of a stuttering Sol Bamba, and charged into the Cardiff half, before playing an inch-perfect ball into the path of Calvert-Lewin.
Even with the option to take the ball closer to the Cardiff net, the young forward struck it first-time, curling a sweetly-struck shot into the corner, past a despairing Etheridge.
With Cardiff sufficiently humiliated, Calvert-Lewin’s strike helped to ensure that Everton were firmly back to winning ways, taking a great deal of pressure off of a recently under-fire Silva.
After the match, the Toffees boss spoke of his delight at the result and the attitude of his players.
“It was important to win, and to get a clean sheet was important also. We were in command of the match, and we deserved the three points”.
“You can prepare well, you can do everything well but, in the end, results will be the main thing in football. And, when we are winning, it will boost our confidence for sure, and our players can perform at their normal level”.
For Warnock, however, the pressure is very much on, with back-to-back heavy home defeats leaving his side one point and one place above the relegation zone.
Nevertheless, the Bluebirds boss issued a rallying cry, insisting that Cardiff would no go down without a fight.
“[Tonight] was disappointing. I didn’t think the performance was too bad, the goals changed the game really. We made elementary mistakes to concede the goal, with people not picking their men up and ball watching. He doesn’t need more than one chance to score, does he, Sigurdsson?”
“Disappointing as it was tonight, we’re not going to throw the towel in now. I’ve said to the players, you’ll feel sorry for yourselves tonight, but we’ve been written off that many times since I’ve been here, and we’ve got to show what we’re made of now”.
“Wolves will probably be rubbing their hands with glee that they are facing us, after we’ve conceded eight goals in two games, but I think we can put up a good performance down there now”.
“I don’t want anybody who’s not in the trenches with me on Saturday. We’ve got to stand up and be counted now, and that goes for everyone”.
“It’s such a funny game, football – it changes overnight. We’ll probably be in the bottom three tomorrow now, when Southampton play Fulham, but we’ve got 10 games to try and get adequate points. To have a chance at this stage with 10 games to go, we’d have snapped your hands off”.
“We’ve got to try and grasp that because it’s a fabulous league to be in for the club”.
With opportunities quickly running out to save their season, Cardiff must ensure that they shake off their horrendous last four days, and focus on the increasingly daunting job at hand.