Other teams might have drifted out of this game, disheartened and aggrieved at Wayne Rooney’s early reprieve from the referee and his subsequent seizing of responsibility. Rooney could have been sent off after eight minutes of this match and went on to make the most of his good fortune, setting up a 2-1 lead which should have been enough for Manchester United.
But at no point did Cardiff City look sorry for themselves or accept their fate. This is not that sort of football ground and Malky Mackay is not that sort of manager. Cardiff pushed and fought and ran and battled in the cold and dark yesterday afternoon and were finally rightly rewarded in the first minute of stoppage time.
At the second attempt, Peter Whittingham swung in a free-kick from the left wing. Kim Bo-kyung, on as a late substitute, darted to the near post and headed past United’s goalkeeper David de Gea.
There have been rousing afternoons here before this season, as Cardiff beat Manchester City and Swansea. Mackay said afterwards that this atmosphere was second only to that derby win, and this was certainly another reward for a display of focus, commitment and effort at the Cardiff City Stadium.
For United, all of those qualities came from just one man, and he could easily not have been on the pitch. Rooney’s display – scoring United’s first and making their second – might not have lasted more than eight minutes.
Chasing a ball down the left wing, he tried to shrug off Jordon Mutch, failed to do so and, frustrated at losing the physical battle, took it out on Mutch’s back leg. It was a silly foul rather than a bad one, but was just the type of off-ball kick – not entirely out of character for Rooney – for which referees usually send players off.
Mackay was surprisingly relaxed about it afterwards, agreeing with Neil Swarbrick’s rather generous decision to give Rooney merely a yellow card. It is hard to imagine the same punishment had it not happened so early in the game.
Some players might have reacted to this like a guilty schoolboy, lucky to be unpunished and just trying to avoid mischief thereafter. Rooney is different, though, and chose instead to make the very most of his liberation. With United’s reliable spine of Nemanja Vidic, Michael Carrick and Robin van Persie all missing, the onus was always going to be on Rooney to try to win the game himself.
Had United held on to their 2-1 advantage, it would have been a victory almost entirely due to Rooney’s personal commitment. It would have owed rather less to the midfield axis of Marouane Fellaini and Tom Cleverley, doubly disappointing and with United facing a difficult trip to Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday night.
Almost immediately after the Rooney incident, he started to make clear what he was intent on doing. Cardiff should have known, when Gary Medel had to scramble away Rooney’s backheel for Javier Hernandez, that he was in the mood to take advantage. Cardiff certainly must have known not to give away the ball so easily.
But after 15 minutes Ben Turner, otherwise impeccable at the heart of the Cardiff defence, rolled a sideways pass straight to Antonio Valencia on United’s right wing. He whipped a quick cross in to Hernandez, who flicked it on towards Rooney. Medel was close but Rooney spun away, paused and shot. The ball bounced off Medel, away from goalkeeper David Marshall and into the bottom corner.
Frustrated as Cardiff might have been with the referee, it was a bad defensive mistake, the only real mis-step of the afternoon, staining what was otherwise a performance of very impressive organisation, rigour and discipline. Turner – that moment aside – and Steven Caulker were both excellent at the heart of Mackay’s perfectly drilled back four, who worked throughout in good combination, flanked by Andrew Taylor and Kevin Théophile-Catherine.
In front of that back four scurries Medel, a barrel of muscle, energy and intent, who patrols the Cardiff half like an over-enthusiastic guard dog. It was even his slap of Fellaini in the United box which allowed Whittingham the retake of the free-kick for the equaliser, to David Moyes’ frustration. Medel is as important as anyone to this team, yesterday destroying United’s moves before launching attacks of his own.
Cardiff were committed to moving the ball forward quickly and they created enough chances to win the game. It was their attacking style, rather than the defensive rigour, which is now expected, that most impressed Mackay. Peter Odemwingie, coming in from the left wing, missed the first opportunity to equalise before Fraizer Campbell pulled his team level in the 33rd minute.
It was simple football very well done. Whittingham passed forward to Mutch in space. He turned and played in Campbell, running in behind Jonny Evans and far quicker than him. Campbell controlled and finished perfectly, into the bottom corner.
The former United striker volleyed another chance over, before Don Cowie could not quite convert Andrew Taylor’s cross and then Whittingham missed when a free-kick fell to him.
It was good but not enough, not least when United had Rooney, liberated by his let-off. In the last minute of the first half he whipped a corner in to the near post where Patrice Evra snuck behind Medel, leapt, met the ball and beat Marshall.
Two defensive errors had cost Cardiff two goals and they had to be immaculate to stay in the game after the interval. Marshall saved from Fellaini and Chris Smalling headers, both, naturally, from Rooney set pieces.
Cardiff were never going to stop fighting and they looked for their second equaliser with tireless effort, even if they relied on Cleverley to create their best chance in open play; passing the ball straight into Campbell’s path. His chip beat De Gea before hitting the crossbar. Whittingham’s ambitious volley from distance flew wide before he curled in a brilliant free-kick which Cleverley headed just over his own bar.
It was another Whittingham delivery, from the opposite side, which brought Cardiff’s deserved equaliser.
Bookings: Cardiff Théophile-Catherine, Caulker, Whittingham, Kim. Man Utd Cleverley, Rooney.
Man of match Rooney.
Match rating 8/10.
Possession: Cardiff 50% Man Utd 50%.
Attempts of target: Cardiff 4 Man Utd 5.
Referee N Swarbrick (Lancashire)