To be a real force in the Championship, teams consistently must get it right in both boxes.
At present, Sheffield Wednesday are still searching for that formula.
Stuart Gray’s charges have yet to develop a ruthless streak in the final third. At Bolton Wanderers and Cardiff City, they enjoyed plenty of possession and created enough chances to have won both fixtures but failed to punish the opposition. The same could be said of the two Hillsborough tussles with Derby County and Nottingham Forest. It is fine margins and Wednesday’s profligacy in front of goal is threatening to derail their progress.
Owls could and perhaps should have picked up something from Cardiff, who had prospective new boss Russell Slade watching from the stands.
Only five minutes were on the clock when Bruno Ecuele Manga ought to have cut out Jacques Maghoma’s through ball. Stevie May raced on to the pass and his first touch was good, his second even better as he knocked the ball past goalkeeper David Marshall.
May had done all the hard work by rounding Marshall but his third and final touch let him down.
On his weaker side, he scuffed his shot, allowing covering defender Fabio Da Silva to rush back on to the goalline to divert it behind for a corner. Gray said it was good defending by Fabio.
“If we had got the first goal, it would have silenced the crowd because they have been struggling at home,” he said. “If we had got our noses in front, we could have picked them off.
“But I can’t blame Stevie for the two goals we conceded.”
That was Wednesday’s only clear-cut opening in the first period. If you don’t take your opportunities at this level, you inevitably live to regret it and that is duly what happened.
Cardiff made nine changes from the side thumped at home by Bournemouth in the Capital One Cup and appeared a team short on confidence and belief in the early stages. But gradually the South Wales club started to dictate the tempo and it took a smart stop by Keiren Westwood to turn Aron Gunnarsson’s header away after an inviting cross by Anthony Pilkington, with former Owls loanee Kenwyne Jones hitting the follow up from an acute angle over the top.
Craig Noone drilled a shot narrowly wide before the Bluebirds deservedly opened the scoring. Joe Mattock conceded a free-kick out wide for handball and Peter Whittingam’s well flighted delivery was powerfully nodded home by Sean Morrison, who claimed his first goal in Cardiff colours. It was slack marking by Atdhe Nuhiu in the centre as the Austrian could not stop Morrison from getting in front of him and heading the set piece in.
Gray said: “It was a free header. If you give a foul away, there is going to be a free ball put into the box. We didn’t get a head on it.”
Wednesday had a big penalty appeal waved away two minutes after the re-start when Fabio chested Mattock’s cross back to Marshall, with a number of Owls players claiming he handled it but referee Michael Bull dismissed their protests.
“We could have had a penalty early in the second half because four or five hands went up straight away so the referee had a decision to make,” said Gray.
“But these things even themselves out and it wasn’t to be.”
Ultimately, the Owls were not be denied and when Chris Maguire fizzed in a low cross from the right, Sean Morrison slid in and inadvertently prodded the ball out of Marshall’s reach.
You sensed the momentum had swung Wednesday’s way and May fired wide from distance before steering a left-foot effort inches off target following a superb cross by Liam Palmer from the right.
It was, however, Cardiff who secured maximum points thanks to Pilkington’s sharp volley. The hosts regained the lead just after the hour mark as Jones nodded Noone’s centre down to Pilkington, who juggled the ball deftly away from Owls skipper Glenn Loovens and volleyed in from 12 yards to seal the club’s first league win since August 19.
“They got two crosses into the box which caused us problems and ended up winning 2-1,” said a frustrated Gray. “We had opportunities to clear the second one and that’s the disappointing thing.”
Dutch centre-back Loovens was given a standing ovation by the Cardiff supporters before kick-off, having spent three years of his career in South Wales.
Loovens, who lined up against his old club for the first time since leaving them in 2008, said: “I had a great three years at Cardiff and always come back with a smile on my face.
“Every club I have left, I have left on a good note. I gave my best at Cardiff for three years and it was nice to get that reception.
“But Sheffield Wednesday is my focus now and the good thing about this league is that games come around fast and we have a chance to get back to winning ways on Tuesday at home.”
Gray threw on all the attacking options at his disposal but despite some late Wednesday pressure, Cardiff held on.
“I had three strikers on at the endand not one of them had a decent chance to score because the end product was very disappointing,” said Gray.
“I felt for them because they didn’t get any service. Our end product was not good enough.
“We dominated possession in the second half but our crossing and decision making in the final third was not the best.”
It was a big blow for the Owls that Tom Lees missed out because of a hamstring problem.
He has performed ever so well since arriving from Leeds United and been instrumental in Wednesday recording seven clean sheets this term.
Given Gray has not got one of the biggest squads, he can ill-afford to be without key players such as Lees, Kieran Lee and Sam Hutchinson for long periods.
Gray said: “Tom felt his hamstring in the Manchester City game and I’m told it’s a grade two.
“He was a big loss for us because you know when the ball does goes into the box thatTom Lees will get his head on it. Hopefully it will only be days but Tom has never had a soft-tissue injury before.
Fingers crossed, he will be a quick healer because we need him back.
“He’s not put a foot wrong since joining us. Would we have lost the Cardiff game without Tom?
“I’m not too sure. I just think that we didn’t defend our box too well.”
The Owls head coach defended his decision to select Lewis Buxton at centre-back over Frenchman Claude Dielna.
He said: “I wanted the balance. I have lost a right-footer in Tom Lees. I wanted to keep Glenn Loovens in the left centre-back slot and I have seen Lewis play there at Nottingham Forest.
“Lewis is pretty similar to Tom. He is very comfortable in possession and a calming influence.
“Lewis did excellent after two games in a short period. I thought he handled it very well.”
After shipping in nine goals in their last two outings, Wednesday need to get back to being compact and hard to break down.
“To come to Cardiff and be disappointed with the result just shows how far my team has come,” insisted Gray. “It’s a very quiet dressing room.
“We know we need to play on the front foot and high intensity football and we will cause any team problems.
“We have got to make sure we punish teams when we are on top and move the ball quicker. We had umpteen chances to get shots off and balls in the box but it was a lack of quality.
“We have let Cardiff off the hook. Everybody in the side let themselves down with their crossing or end product.
“I don’t think we are a million miles away.
“Players don’t mean to pass it and cross it badly. We have got to get consistency in players.
“We have got Ipswich and Leeds to come so we have got to bounce back.
“It’s an unusual feeling back-to-back defeats but we know we should have got something out of the game.
“The good thing in this league is the next game comes around quickly.
It won’t be an easy game against Ipswich. I can’t fault the players effort. It was just the decision-making in the final third.”
Cardiff City: Marshall 6; Brayford 6, S Morrison 7, Manga 7, Fabio 6***; Pilkington 7, Gunnarsson 6, Whittingham 6, Noone 5* Daehli 7, Jones 6**. Substitutes: R Morrison* 62, 6, Macheda** 65 6, Ralls*** 85. Unused: Moore, Le Fondre, Adeyemi, James.
Sheffield Wednesday: Westwood 7; Palmer 6, Buxton 6, Loovens 6, Mattock 6; Maguire 6*, Coke 6**, Semedo 6***, Maghoma 6; Nuhiu 5, May 7. Substitutes: Hope*66 5, Drenthe**66, 5, Madine*** 75. Not used: McCabe, Helan, Dielna, Kirkland.