SO Huddersfield Town’s head coach David Wagner had it sussed all along – protect your first-team assets to give you the best possible chance of fielding a full-strength team in the play-offs.
Eight days after making 10 changes to a side that subsequently lost at Birmingham – much to the chagrin of the Blues’ relegation rivals Nottingham Forest and Blackburn, not to mention the Football League – Wagner must have wished he had adopted the same approach again for the regular-season finale, and blow what anyone thought.
Because 21 minutes into this lacklustre defeat to Cardiff, Wagner saw his first-choice goalkeeper Danny Ward sent off for handling outside the box.
It means Huddersfield go into a mouthwatering play-off semi-final first leg with Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Wednesday next Sunday without their No 1 goalkeeper and will be reliant on 21-year-old Joel Coleman to keep out one of the most potent strike forces in the Championship.
Coleman is no novice; he was one of the 10 changes Wagner made for the game at St Andrew’s. But he is not first choice either.
It will have left a bitter taste in Wagner’s mouth, given his anger at the rebuke he received from the Football League last week. He defended his decision, and rightly so, given he has rotated frequently this season.
Everyone is back down to earth now. Now everybody sees what sense it made to switch players before Birmingham.Huddersfield Town boss, David Wagner
The restoration of many of those first-teamers for the visit of Neil Warnock’s side smacked more of an attempt to regain momentum than an acceptance that he was wrong in the first place.
“It was very important that everybody has rhythm,” said Wagner, in explaining his decision to restore many of his regular starters.
“What happened (yesterday) in the first 15, 20 minutes cannot happen next week because the play-offs will be over.
“This is why I am so happy we brought everybody back on the pitch (yesterday), because they all know they have to switch on from the first second. Everyone is back down to earth now.
“Now everybody sees what sense it made to switch players before Birmingham.
“With the selection I made for Birmingham, we wanted to be prepared for every single situation that can happen in the play-offs, and now we have a situation which we wanted not to have with the red card to Danny Ward.
“But because we prepared ourselves as well as we did, I am not worried about it.”
Even without Ward for the first leg and irrespective of the team selection brouhaha, there is no escaping the feeling that, despite reaching the play-offs with an inferior budget to their peers and having recorded their highest finish for 45 years, Town have hit the buffers heading into the play-offs.
They won only three of their final 10 games, conceding home advantage in the second leg by slipping to fifth in the process.
Wagner put some of this down to having nothing to play for after a 1-0 win at Wolves three games ago sealed their play-off place.
There was no ‘excitement’ as he described it, with so little at stake against Birmingham and then Cardiff. But the way they were bullied by Warnock’s team must alarm him. “It was more a lack of focus and not being switched on,” he said.
Danish striker Kenneth Zohore was a handful, scoring the opener and creating two more for Joe Bennett with his muscular presence and surprisingly slick footwork for a man who stands at 6ft 4ins.
Town fell behind in the seventh minute when Cardiff capitalised on hesitancy in the home midfield. Christopher Schindler had initially done well to thwart Zohore with a sliding challenge, but the loose ball was seized upon by Junior Hoilett and he quickly released Zohore, who scampered clear and smartly slotted the ball under Ward.
Ward then had to be alert to beat out Aron Gunnarson’s drilled effort before Rajiv van la Parra sparked Town into life by springing the offside trap, only to be denied a shooting chance by Sean Morrison.
Just eight minutes after Ward was dismissed for racing out of his goal and handling as he dived at Hoilett’s feet, substitute goalkeeper Coleman was picking the ball out of the net as Bennett met Zohore’s low centre on the edge of the area with a thumping drive that nearly took the net off its moorings.
A visibly shaken Town struggled thereafter to get a foothold in the game, the closest they went in a one-sided half being a first-time effort by Collin Quaner after Isaiah Brown’s searching cross.
Van la Parra dinked a shot onto the roof of the net and Quaner almost turned home Aaron Mooy’s low centre, but the 10 men remained second best.
Bennett removed any hope of a comeback, sweeping home after another direct run and precise pass from Zohore capped a break started by veteran Cardiff substitute Peter Whittingham.
Huddersfield Town: Ward, Smith, Hefele, Schindler, Lowe, Hogg (Whitehead 79) , Mooy, Brown (Wells 68), Van La Parra, Scannell (Coleman 21), Quaner. Unused substitutes: Coleman, Holmes-Dennis, Cranie, Payne, Lolley.
Cardiff City: Murphy; Richards, Peltier, Morrison, Connolly; Rawls, Pilkington (Whittingham 63), Bennett, Gunnarson, Zohore (Lambert 79), Hoilett (Harris 67). Unused substitutes: Amos, Noone, Halford.