Roberto Soldado was a popular match-winner as his first-half goal was enough to separate the two sides in a hard-fought game against Cardiff City at the Lane.
The Spanish striker scored his first goal since our 3-0 win over Stoke City here in the last game of 2013 – his 11th of the season – adding a delightful finishing touch to a breakaway move in the 28th minute.
Tim Sherwood made two changes from Thursday’s win over Dnipro, with Aaron Lennon and Paulinho replacing Christian Eriksen and Sandro. And with the Head Coach urging us to start games on the front foot in recent weeks, we were swiftly on the attack against Cardiff.
Although visiting goalkeeper David Marshall wasn’t tested in the opening minutes, there were opportunities for Soldado and Andros Townsend in the early stages as we continued the impetus from Thursday’s three-goal second half blitz.
City had chances themselves early on, Craig Bellamy blazing high and wide from a seventh minute free-kick while Michael Dawson produced a fantastic block to deny Fabio Da Silva a minute later, after Bellamy’s burst down the right flank.
Emmanuel Adebayor’s long legs just weren’t quite long enough to get on the end of Zeki Fryers’ whipped cross on 13 minutes, while Marshall did well to block away Townsend’s fizzed right-footed shot.
A flurry of corners saw Dawson almost give us the lead on three separate occasions, once heading straight at Marshall, firing a half-volley well wide from another before going closest with the third, glancing Kyle Naughton’s corner just past the far upright with a near-post header.
The opening goal came on 28 minutes and its creation was well-crafted. Townsend led the breakaway from just outside our penalty box and slid it wide to Adebayor on the left, who in turn produced a delightful pass to Soldado, advancing into the area. He took one touch and poked it into the far corner past Marshall for a goal that was hugely well-received. Every one of his team-mates came to celebrate with him in front of the Park Lane end and his name resounded around the Lane as the fans showed their support for the Spanish striker, who has found goals difficult to come by lately.
Within a minute Cardiff were almost level though when former Spur Steven Caulker headed Bellamy’s corner against the crossbar from just two yards out with Hugo Lloris beaten.
That proved to be the last clear chance of the half as we went into the interval with the narrow advantage but again, we started the second period brightly, Ben Turner halting Lennon’s progress with a fine tackle just outside the area, while Declan John’s challenge on the winger moments later was less well-timed and given as a free-kick by referee Phil Dowd. Townsend’s curling free-kick was well held under his crossbar by Marshall.
The young winger had another attempt on the hour mark, this time drilling his effort wide of the far post, while at the other end, Fabio’s 22-yard low drive brought a comfortable save out of Lloris.
Territorially we were having the upperhand without creating clear cut chances as the City defence was coping with crosses into the box and we were struggling to find any real penetration through the middle.
Nacer Chadli and Sandro entered the fray in place of Townsend and Paulinho in a bid to freshen things up inside the final 20 minutes, while City introduced Kenywne Jones to their attack although one of his first contributions was to bundle over team-mate Frazier Campbell on a promising break.
The visitors tried to put pressure on in the closing minutes but our defence stood firm, while we almost added a second in the 89th minute when Chadli broke through the middle and slipped a pass to his left to fellow substitute Harry Kane but his shot was saved by Marshall.
There were a few late nerves when Cardiff won an injury-time corner and Marshall went up for the set-piece but we dealt with the danger and saw out the final few seconds for the victory.