27 April ~ Despite losing their manager and a large chunk of their playing squad, Cardiff City find themselves on the cusp of the Championship play-offs with one game remaining. They travel to Selhurst Park tomorrow needing to avoid a defeat to secure a third consecutive top-six finish. If they lose, Middlesbrough could leapfrog them with a win at Watford. Although Palace might not have much to play for, they will be keen to avenge their Carling Cup semi-final defeat. Should Cardiff secure sixth place, they are likely to face last season’s relegated trio of West Ham, Birmingham and Blackpool in the play-offs.
Having missed out on the top six by a single goal in 2009, Cardiff were beaten by Blackpool in the 2010 play-off final and crashed out in the semi-finals last season. Expectations have already been exceeded this term and they may find the mantle of underdogs a better fit. Cardiff approach the task with momentum, having gone unbeaten for nine games.
Although they have been accused of "doing a Cardiff" by struggling either side of the Carling Cup final after an impressive start to the season, the team are a very different beast under Malky Mackay. Where Dave Jones tried and failed with veterans and an excessive number of loan signings, Mackay has fashioned a young side that appears united and willing to fight for each other. There have been too many draws – 18 in 45 games – and too many points dropped from winning positions, but they should become even stronger and more savvy next season.
Joe Mason typifies this new Cardiff side. The 20-year-old was a relative unknown when he arrived from Plymouth but he has been a revelation, recently winning the club’s Young Player of the Year award. The deep-lying forward demonstrates a natural footballing intelligence and has scored 12 goals this season, including the opener in the Carling Cup final.
Peter Whittingham, the Cardiff Player of the Year, who you may remember for this goal, has been relatively quiet in recent weeks, while Ben Turner and Aron Gunnarsson, both acquired from Coventry, have been immense. The team remains short of wingers and lacks a physical presence up front, where Kenny Miller has the thankless task of playing as a lone striker. But the future looks bright and any further progress this season will be an unexpected bonus. Scott Johnson