Cardiff have lost their place in the Premier League but not their faith in their manager. Andros Townsend had just scored Crystal Palace’s third goal, ending any hopes Cardiff had of turning this game around and taking their battle for survival to the final day, when a chant broke out among the home supporters. “There’s only one Neil Warnock” reverberated loud and clear, followed by widespread applause.
The 70-year-old has still to keep a team in the top flight, but this season will never go down as a failure. Cardiff had exceeded all expectations by winning promotion in the first place and it says much about the grit, determination and spirit that Warnock has harnessed in his players that they were still in with a chance of staying up with two matches to go.
Ultimately, the gulf in class was too wide to bridge and this was one of those occasions that exposed their limitations. Crystal Palace, bristling with attacking intent, ruthlessly took advantage of some benign Cardiff defending to continue their outstanding away from. They have now collected 19 points away from home in 2019, which is second only to Manchester City.
Wilfried Zaha got their first and although Cardiff were soon back on level terms when Martin Kelly scored an own goal, Michy Batshuayi quickly added a second for Palace. Townsend then took the game away from Cardiff, yet even then Warnock’s team refused to go quietly, with Bobby Reid pulling a goal back in injury-time. Cardiff knew that they had no margin for error here. Warnock picked a team with that in mind, a clear sense that it was time to throw caution to the wind after Cardiff’s meek defeat at Fulham the previous weekend. Yet there was always a danger that those tactics would play into the hands of a Palace side that love to play on the counter-attack.
So it proved during an opening 45 minutes when Palace scored three times, once in their own net and twice at the right end. In truth, the damage could have been a lot worse for Cardiff, who found themselves in the unenviable position of chasing the game and were vulnerable every time that Palace broke. Cardiff, in fairness, had a few chances. Josh Murphy’s dipping 25-yard shot after only 41 seconds clipped the foot of the upright, Bruno Ecuele Manga’s header was later tipped over by Vicente Guaita, and from the corner that followed the Palace keeper made an instinctive stop to keep out a ball that flicked off Bobby Reid’s shoulder.
Yet it was Palace who looked far more menacing, especially through the pace of Zaha. Twisting and turning inside the Cardiff area, the winger hit the sidenetting moments before giving Palace the lead. Picked out by Andros Townsend on the edge of the area, Zaha shifted one way and then the other, bamboozling Aron Gunnarsson in the process, before drilling a low right-footed shot that gave Neil Etheridge no chance.
Cardiff were level within three minutes in farcical circumstances. Leandro Bacuna, an early substitute for the injured Victor Camarasa, curled a deep cross from the right that Kelly tried to deal with by clearing the ball with his left foot. The Palace defender got the contact all wrong, however, and Guaita was left stranded as the ball trickled into an empty net.
Parity did not last long. Batshuayi swapped passes with Jordan Ayew inside the Cardiff area and thumped a rising shot into the roof of the net to restore Palace’s advantage. The visitors were rampant for a period, relishing the opportunity to run into the space that opened up as the game became stretched. James McArthur scampered clear on the right to set up Zaha, only for Ayew, his own teammate, to get in the way of a goalbound shot. Then Etheridge produced a point-blank save to keep out Batshuayi’s diving header from a terrific Townsend cross.
Cardiff should have equalised 10 minutes after the restart. Nathaniel Mendez-Laing’s superb delivery from the right picked out Murphy at the far post but the winger, who was totally unmarked, miskicked from only six yards out. Kenneth Zohore, on for Danny Ward, then sprinted onto Reid’s threaded pass but failed in his attempt to slip the ball through Guaita’s legs. The game was end to end and there was always the possibility that Palace would strike again. Townsend did exactly that when he stepped inside Joe Bennett before firing in off the near post, only for Reid to have the final word.