by Olly Allen
Cardiff City suffered a second defeat in three games as Reading ran out 3-0 winners against the Bluebirds on Sunday afternoon.
Two first half goals from George Pușcaș and John Swift’s late strike gave the Royals a comfortable victory, and there could easily have been more goals – Pușcaș missed a golden opportunity for his hat-trick and Yakou Méïté also had a penalty saved by Alex Smithies.
The result should serve as a wake-up call for Neil Warnock’s side and provide a sharp reminder that life back in the Championship will not be easy. Their performance could not have been further away from promotion contenders, which they were labelled as before a ball had been kicked at the start of the month.
That may be the first problem that the Bluebirds have to overcome this season: dealing with being the favourites not only in most individual games, but for promotion across the campaign as a whole. This is clearly an issue that many relegated sides struggle with, as no side has come down from the Premier League in the last two years and gone straight back up.
It’s also a scenario that is fairly new to Neil Warnock. The 70-year-old is used to transforming struggling sides, not being in charge of those who are strong already. His teams are characterised by being the underdog that upsets the odds, but now they must prove the odds right. Even when Cardiff were promoted in 2017/18, they had little expectation on them. Right until the end of the season the pressure was on free-flowing Fulham, who many expected to go up instead of the Bluebirds.
So far this season, Cardiff have faced three sides who they were expected to beat, but instead largely struggled. While Reading have spent a lot of money in the transfer window, they are still a side who had won just two of their previous 12 league games. Having battled relegation in the last two seasons, they were among the bookmakers’ favourites to go down at the start of the campaign. Wigan, 18th last season, are also fancied for the drop and have lost both of their games since beating Cardiff 3-2 on the opening day. Meanwhile, it took the Bluebirds until the 96th minute to defeat Luton Town, who are in the Championship for the first time in 12 years.
While Warnock’s sides are not known for having a lot of possession, Cardiff have allowed all three of their opponents so far to control the match, which they cannot afford to do. On Sunday they started with three defensive midfielders, which meant they struggled to link the defence and attack until Calum Paterson came on in the second half. It left Robert Glatzel hugely isolated upfront and forced him to play deeper, which limited the Bluebirds’ attacking outlet even further. The club reportedly bought the German striker instead of Reading’s two-goal hero Pușcaș.
At the back, Sean Morrison and Aden Flint have not been the imposing centre-back partnership that they promised to be. They have not been able to deal with tricky, skilful attackers such as Pușcaș, Michael Jacobs and Josh Windass and were even out-muscled on Sunday by Lucas Joao. This has resulted in Cardiff conceding seven goals in the Championship already, the joint-most in the division. In comparison, their promotion season was built on a strong defence that conceded the joint fewest in the league.
Of course there is plenty of time for Cardiff to sort themselves out. The long Championship season may be gruelling but it can also be a blessing, and the Bluebirds will have a good opportunity to bounce back on home turf against manager-less Huddersfield Town on Wednesday.
Last season’s league winners Norwich City won just once in their first six games and were 11th in late September, so supporters certainly should not panic yet.
Sunday’s result needs to be the low point of their campaign, not the start of a slump.