Blackpool set down a marker as the promotion race took another twist at the Cardiff City Stadium on Saturday. The Seasiders ran out 3-1 winners in the Welsh capital to move into fourth place in the Championship. Here are my thoughts on the game:
1. Young Scots show promise
Blackpool's activity on deadline day this January was much more sedate than in recent years, mainly owing to the fact that the club had moved earlier than usual in the window to sign some of their targets. Two of these players - Danny Wilson and John Fleck - both came through the youth system at Rangers and displayed some of their potential against Cardiff.
Fleck made his second start since joining 'Pool after a mixed debut against Crystal Palace two weeks ago. In that game Fleck occupied an advanced midfield role in a 4-2-1-3 formation, but struggled to really influence the match, despite a lively start that saw an effort from outside the box fizz just wide of the upright. Against Palace Fleck often found himself a little too high up the pitch which meant that 'Pool surrendered some of the middle of the pitch. However, against Cardiff Fleck could be found much deeper, and this role seemed to suit him a little better.
In a goalless first half, it was Blackpool who were the dominant team and the midfield three of Barry Ferguson, Chris Basham and Fleck moved the ball well. Fleck and Basham both looked to get forward at various times, with Fleck unfortunate to see some of his attempted through-balls cut out. Fleck was a little reluctant to shoot and again did fade in the second half, but this could be a fitness issue due to a lack of first-team games at Rangers this season. Still room for improvement then, but Fleck could play his part between now and the end of the season as Ian Holloway will be likely to continue shuffling his pack as the matches come thick and fast.
Fleck's former Rangers colleague Wilson had an even better afternoon, giving Holloway a dilemma for his team selection when Ian Evatt returns from suspension in time for the next league outing against Portsmouth. The on-loan Liverpool man has found it difficult to establish himself in the side since joining at the start of January, but his best display in tangerine so far will put his manager in a quandary.
For the most part, Wilson looked solid on Saturday and was strong in the air. As a natural left-footed player, he also gave the defence some balance whereas 'Pool are used to playing with two right-footed central defenders. As a result Wilson would occasionally look for the long diagonal from left to right - a feature of Blackpool's play that is returning in moderation. It could be argued that Wilson is partly culpable for Cardiff's goal, as illustrated by Tangerine Dreaming, but it was nevertheless a good showing as competition hots up in all areas of the pitch.
2. Kevin Phillips masterclass
Kevin Phillips showed all his experience as he once more came off the bench to help turn another game on its head. Phillips now has four goals in the last five matches as Championship sides continue to dread the sight of him warming up on the sidelines. His equalising goal on Saturday was another classic example of why he remains such an effective player in spite of his advancing years. Phillips' movement following his namesake's corner was simply exceptional, as the image below illustrates.
Phillips has a knack of being able to anticipate where the ball might drop in such situations and his sixth sense paid dividends yet again. It's quite incredible to think that despite the reputation he commands, Phillips is still allowed to slip away from his marker and find so much space on his own. When the ball did drop out to him, Phillips displayed his excellent technique by calmly picking out his spot and finishing with aplomb.
The deadly finish was in stark contrast to the far simpler attempt which fell to Nouah Dicko, who never looked confident as he raced through one-on-one with David Marshall earlier in the half. Holloway will be hoping Kevin Phillips can teach the on-loan Wigan player a thing or two about composure. The 38 year old has spoken of his desire for more involvement from the start of matches, but there is an argument that he can be more effective as a goal threat in the last third of games, as evidenced by past form. Either way, Phillips is having a major contribution in what is turning out to be a rather successful season.
3. Late goals continue
In the review of the Crystal Palace match, I picked out a handful of statistics regarding the number of late goals Blackpool are scoring. Rather than attempting to address this with some early goals, the last two league games have exaggerated these figures further still. Prior to the last two fixtures, just over 72% of the Seasiders' goals had come in the second half - following five more late goals, this figure has now increased to a round 75%.
Goals in the last 15 minutes of games now account for almost 40% of all league goals, with 'Pool now having gained 22 points from losing positions - the most in the Championship. Two more of those late goals were scored by Matt Phillips, who continued his recent brilliant form. Both goals had an element of fortune - the first came after an initial shot was blocked and bounced up nicely while the second was nearly saved by Marshall. Regardless, Matt Phillips is now a genuine goal threat and in the form of his life.
What is so evident of late is that Blackpool are beginning to regain the attitude that they possessed two seasons ago, when the team didn't lose belief when going behind. Back then it was common to hear Holloway talk about how going a goal down didn't affect his side and that they just kept going. There's an argument to suggest that the class of 2012 even thrive on it, having come back to get results despite conceding the first goal in each of the last five competitive matches. How long that run can continue is unclear, but it is a sign of a top team.
4. Cardiff not at their best
Having been unfortunate not to take all three points at Bloomfield Road earlier in the season, Cardiff will be cursing the sight of tangerine (or white, as was somewhat needlessly the case on Saturday) after losing their one goal advantage. However, on this occasion they will accept that they deserved little from the encounter as Blackpool asserted themselves right from kick-off. The hosts spent large chunks of the first half watching Blackpool keep the ball, although without creating many clear-cut opportunities.
Cardiff seemed to use Dicko's miss to fire them up however, and shortly afterwards scored through Joe Mason after some good build-up. Rather than kick on from there though, Cardiff failed to react to Blackpool's substitutions and it was the visiting side who regained the initiative when Kevin Phillips levelled the scores. In the last 10 minutes of the game, Blackpool were able to exploit Cardiff's high defensive line on numerous occasions and as such it was no surprise when 'Pool got their 2nd and 3rd goals as the home team crumbled.
Cardiff will look to write off Saturday's defeat as just being a bad day - it was after all only their fifth loss of the season, hardly the start of a crisis. Malkay Mackay will be particularly disappointed with the marking on the first goal and the failure to keep a closer eye on Matt Phillips in the closing stages. Cardiff still look set for a top six finish at the least however, and another meeting between these two sides in the play-offs remains a possibility. Based on recent meetings, it would probably not be an encounter Cardiff would relish.