Cardiff City 1-0 Plymouth Argyle
JOE LEDLEY was again the match-winner for Cardiff City as the Bluebirds started 2008 the same way they finished 2007 with a hard-fought and deserved victory.
Following his stunning solo effort at Preston on the weekend, 20-year-old Ledley this time had the relatively simple task on the half-hour of firing home the rebound after defender Tony Capaldi’s shot had been saved.
Ledley’s recent showings have just fuelled speculation that he could be on his way out of Ninian Park, indeed Premiership scouts packed the stands here and City manager Dave Jones admitted if the right club came in with the right price he would be forced to let the Welsh international go.
Jones himself also watched the action against Plymouth from the grandstand alongside his chairman Peter Ridsdale.
The Cardiff manager was serving the first of a two-match touchline ban imposed by the FAW after comments he made following the Bluebirds game at Barnsley earlier in the season.
From his good vantage point Jones will have been relatively pleased with what he saw as his side made it seven points out of nine over the festive period and earned their fifth win in seven games to make those play-off places at the top of the Championship look just that little bit closer.
The Bluebirds boss went with the same side which battled out that fine away win at Preston. Despite picking up his fifth yellow card in that game, skipper Stephen McPhail was available as his suspension does not kick in for seven days. The midfielder will now miss Saturday’s FA Cup clash at Chasetown.
Striker Steve Thompson was back after serving a three match ban for his sending off at Bristol City, but the big Scot had to make do with a start on the substitutes’ bench.
Plymouth manager Paul Sturrock started with Welsh international Jermaine Easter up front following the departure of Barry Hayles to Leicester. Easter linked up for the Pilgrims with top scorer Sylvain Ebanks-Blake.
And it was the 12-goal Ebanks-Blake who had a sight of goal within a minute here, but the slightly portly striker used his hand to control it and the referee blew for the offence.
The Bluebirds had to wait a further five minutes before their first bit of excitement in the box, Peter Whittingham swinging in a free-kick from the right and Roger Johnson nodding back across goal. A scramble in the Pilgrims’ six-yard box saw the visitors finally hook it to safety.
There was plenty of bustle early on if not too much quality as passes went astray and runs unread. What good play there was came from Cardiff, who looked dangerous, particularly down the left flank where Capaldi and Ledley were linking up well.
It was the Welsh international again, fresh from his heroics at Deepdale who caught the eye, but for all their dominance Cardiff had little to show for it. Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink wildly lashing over from the edge of the box on 11 minutes was about it.
And the Bluebirds might have got caught out as they pushed on, Plymouth midfielder Lee Martin letting fly from long-range on 19 minutes with Kasper Schmeichel at full stretch and mighty relieved to see it fizz just past the upright.
Two minutes later the visitors were at it again, Peter Halmosi this time trying to curl one into the top corner, but just misjudging his effort.
But those were aberrations really as the Bluebirds were basically running the show and reward came on the half hour with the goal they craved and it was Ledley and Capaldi who created it.
Good work from Hasselbaink saw the striker lay off a lovely little flick to Ledley before being clattered to the floor.
The referee played a good advantage, Ledley took a touch and surged on with the visitors’ defence completely stretched. Capaldi, bombing up the flank, was on the overlap.
Ledley found him and the defender thrust into the box and fired a swerving drive which Pilgrims goalkeeper Romain Larrieu could only push away. Ledley, who had been following up, drove the rebound home and Ninian Park erupted.
But within a minute the Cardiff City faithful were almost left shocked. David Norris fired for goal and the effort took a massive deflection off Roger Johnson.
Scmeichel had committed to his right and the ball spun through the air, but dropped just wide of the keeper’s other post.
Johnson, who was his usual passionate and committed self, was in the wars moments later taking a boot to the head from Ebanks-Blake. The centre-half was forced off needing stitches in a mouth wound, but was back on minutes later wearing a new shirt and receiving a hero’s welcome.
Just before half-time Gavin Rae had a poor shot and Hasselbaink glanced a header over, but City went into the break with their tails up.
Things might have got even better six minutes into the second half when a mix-up in the Argyle defence almost allowed Hasselbaink in, but Larrieu finally regained his composure and the ball.
Three minutes later a great run down the left saw Paul Parry put in a nice cross, but Peter Whittingham could not get a head on the ball.
There were scares for Cardiff to contend with as Plymouth went in search of that equaliser. On 61 minutes it took a fine full-spread save from Schmeichel as Easter, who had been kept relatively quiet, fired at goal.
Cardiff are keen to keep Schmeichel at Ninian Park and are talking to Manchester City, and there is no doubt the young keeper would be missed by the Bluebirds.
The second half disappointed slightly compared with the first as both sides tired, but Cardiff were performing a solid rearguard action when needed with Kevin McNaughton his usual excellent self, Johnson and Glenn Loovens like rocks in the centre and Capaldi having his best game in a City shirt for a while against his former club.
There were the inevitable jitters as the game wore on, but it was a situation really of City’s own making as they squandered three glorious chances to put things beyond doubt.
The main culprit was substitute Steven MacLean. On 79 minutes Ledley slipped through a beautiful pass to put the striker clear, but MacLean could not beat the advancing Larrieu when he really should have.
In the final minute Ledley again teed up MacLean, but the striker shot wide from the edge of the box. Bad misses and surely the sort of chances he was brought in from Sheffield Wednesday to bury.
In between that Parry had muscled his way through, but, lacking support, was caught in two minds and fluffed his lines. In the end though it didn’t matter and City now travel to Chasetown on Saturday very much in the ascendancy.