By John Jones
Cardiff manager Neil Warnock was left furious as his side fell victim to poor refereeing decisions in a 2-1 defeat at the hands of a lacklustre visiting Chelsea side.
A Victor Camarasa strike early in the second half put the Bluebirds on track for the first points against a top six side this season, but two late goals from Cesar Azpilicueta and Ruben Loftus-Cheek saw Chelsea come away with an undeserved win.
Accusing fingers were not pointed at any player on the pitch, however, but at referee Craig Pawson and his assistants, as Azpilicueta headed home from an offside position either side of two other controversial decisions, with Sean Morrison denied a late penalty after a clumsy Antonio Rudiger escaped a red card.
Prior to kick-off, it was the Chelsea starting line-up that was raising eyebrows, as Maurizio Sarri elected to drop N’Golo Kante and Eden Hazard to the bench, with starlet Callum Hudson-Odoi – who many may have expected to have made his first Premier League start – joining them.
For the home side, Warnock named a strong starting eleven, unchanged to the one that beat West Ham earlier in the month, with Oumar Niasse leading the line.
If Sarri’s decision to bench Kante and Hazard seemed questionable before kick-off, it looked increasingly erroneous throughout the first half, as Chelsea, whilst dominating possession, were laboured and unimaginative going forward.
A rasping Pedro effort that brushed the top of the bar was the best it got for the visitors in the game’s first quarter, as they were frustrated by a solid Cardiff defence.
Josh Murphy looked in the mood from the off for the hosts, posing a constant threat down the right wing, and was unlucky to see his curling shot go wide of the far post after getting the better of Marcos Alonso.
Chelsea were directionless and sloppy, playing missed passes and firing wild shots well wide from distance, whilst Cardiff were struggling to win back the ball and find the final product.
A despairingly dull half was not without controversy, however, as captain Sean Morrison was hauled down inside the box, after Chelsea had a penalty shout waved away in the opening minutes.
Goalless at the break, the game looked like it could go either way, but Cardiff would have been all too aware of the importance of a win to kick off their brutal run-in, and looked ready to grab the game by the horns to secure a result.
And grab they did, as the deadlock was broken by the home side just a minute after the restart.
After his signature looping throw-in was rebuffed, Arron Gunnarsson laid the ball back to Harry Arter, who turned a cute cross into the box.
To meet it was Victor Camarasa, who used the pace on the ball to crash home a sweetly-struck first time effort, which flew past a helpless Kepa Arrizabalaga.
With the wind in their sails, Cardiff searched for a second, with Camarasa again testing Kepa after bursting down the right.
To remedy his side’s rapidly worsening situation, Sarri turned to Hazard for some badly needed inspiration, and it didn’t take long for the Belgian to make his presence known, as he was brought down by Arter en route to the Cardiff area, earning the Bluebirds man a booking.
Despite Hazard’s introduction, the Chelsea fans were less than impressed by what they’d seen, with chants of ‘We want Sarri out’ and, more crudely, ‘Fuck Sarriball’, being launched from the away end.
Whilst the visitors upped the pressure as a lively Loftus-Cheek entered the fray alongside Olivier Giroud, they still found themselves unable to break through a resilient Cardiff defence; they knew they’d need some luck.
Fortunately for Sarri, as a number of visiting teams have seemingly discovered on their travels to South Wales this season, luck is in plentiful supply, or, at least, favourable refereeing decisions.
With just six minutes remaining, Willian’s swinging corner was met by Alonso, who flicked the ball on into the path of Azpilicueta, who headed home from close range.
Gutting for Cardiff. Particularly gutting, however, when replays confirmed what had looked obvious in real-time; Azpilicueta was a full yard offside.
Though linesman Eddie Smart claimed his view of the incident was obstructed by Willian, the decision seemed clear as day. Chelsea couldn’t believe their luck, whilst Cardiff were deflated; Warnock apoplectic with rage.
There was plenty of time for a couple more kicks in the teeth for the Bluebirds, however, as substitute Kenneth Zohore, chasing a long ball forward, and bearing down on goal, was brought down cynically by Rudiger.
Despite being Rudiger the last defender, referee Craig Pawson, clearly believing Kepa would have got to the ball before the Danish striker, only showed the Chelsea man a yellow, though everyone in blue was calling for a dismissal.