Sunday, 20 August 2017

Wolves Warnock'd

With the two sides boasting 100% records from the three Championship games so far this season, there was always going to be an air of confidence surrounding Molineux yesterday afternoon.

Wolves fans had the sort of self-assurance you tend to get when you spend nearly £20m in one summer on quality players.

Before every game, I look on forums and social media to see what the fans of the opposition think ahead of the upcoming fixture. 

Most expect a tough match against a well-drilled Neil Warnock side - a statement history would prove correct. However, a lot of the Wolves support showed some incredibly misplaced arrogance in assuming that gritty, ugly Cardiff would be no match for their silky, total football. 

They were keen to stress that Cardiff had beaten three poor teams this season (Burton, Villa and Sheffield United) and that once they came up against the mighty Wanderers, they would be found wanting. 

Cardiff fans, on the other hand, although in buoyant mood, were wary that City simply don't do four wins in a row. I'll admit, I wasn't convinced City could win up in the Midlands. I've been following the Bluebirds for long enough to know that when things are going too good, a fall is usually around the corner. 

Before we were even out of South Wales, an announcement was made on the bus that The Telegraph was reporting that a Brighton bid had been accepted by City for Kenneth Zohore. With the mood sombre, City fans pondered just how could City expect to win at Molineux without the big Dane, and was Omar Bogle not signed as back-up, but as a replacement?

As the mood in the away end brightened following a Manchester United goal-fest at the Liberty Stadium, things got even better when the news came through that Zohore was starting for City, and that the supposed bid was a load of rubbish - for now at least.

To the game itself, and, if any Wolves fans had any assumptions that this was going to be a walkover, they were soon to be reminded that those kinds of matches seldom exist in the Championship. 

In this league, work-rate and cohesion go a hell of a long way. You have to be as good off the ball as you are with it and Cardiff's pressing was on a level I've never seen from them before. In the early stages, Wolves were not given an inch. 

Warnock's teams have a reputation for being bullish, physical and masters of the 'dark arts'. Little kicks, niggles and clever fouls are used to disrupt the opposition and void them of any rhythm. These tactics, employed by Cardiff on times yesterday, seemed to wind up the majority inside Molineux, who struggled to grasp why a team had come to fight and not simply bow down to the footballing gods in orange. 

Wolves were rattled as several passes from their star players went astray and things quickly got heated. The crowd voiced the majority of their discontent towards referee Scott Duncan, after several 'meaty' challenges from Cardiff. 

There was also one incident that caused managers Nuno and Warnock to square up following an apparent elbow on Romain Siass from the impressive Loic Damour. If anything did happen - and the reaction of the benches and stand suggested it did - it was off the ball and on the opposite side of the away end, so, to quote Arsene Wenger: "I didn't see it."

If it was harsh on Wolves that Cardiff didn't go in at the break with ten men, it was harsher that Cardiff weren't in the lead. Sol Bamba rattled the bar with a point-blank header, and with goalkeeper John Ruddy called into action numerous times, Wolves were fortunate to still be level. 

The second half started much the same and the 2,000 travelling support didn't have to wait too long for a goal. Junior Hoilett, one of the star men of the season so far, easily beat his man before having the composure to pick out Joe Ralls who passed the ball into the net.

Awoken after conceding, Wolves started to show why they're considered one of the favourites to go up this year. 

They got the equaliser when Neil Etheridge could only parry a shot into the path of Diogo Jota, who in turn set up Barry Douglas to drill in a ball for Leo Bonatini to tap in. Etheridge has been criticised by some for not holding on to the initial shot, but I think that's a bit unfair. It was a powerful effort and he did try to get it away from danger, which didn't quite work out. 

Etheridge has been solid since his arrival and with Lee Camp out for some time yet, I am more than comfortable with City having him in between the sticks. 

With the match evenly poised and the crowd enthralled in an intriguing encounter, both sides looked for the winner. Cardiff were especially vulnerable on the counter, with several of their own corners nearly resulting in one-on-ones for Wanderers.

When I went on the forums ahead of the game, Nathaniel-Mendez Laing, a Wolves academy protege, was predictably labelled a 'Wolves reject' by some, despite the fact he had scored three league goals in as many games this season.

Aside from the reject comments, the more 'thoughtful' of the Wolves fanbase acknowleged that Mendez-Laing came through when Wolves were in the Premier League. With a raft of quality available, the youngster was unable to force his way in and found himself plying his trade in the lower leagues. With his ability unquestioned, it was his mental state that seemingly ended his career at Wolves. This is something Warnock has clearly addressed already in his few months at Cardiff.

Another feature on the messageboards was just how many ex-Wolves players seem to score against them when they revisit. It's a football cliche that players go back to haunt their old clubs, but it's seemingly true for Wolves. In fact, when Mendez-Laing powered a shot through Ruddy to score the eventual winner, every reply on the Wolves forum was along the line of: 'Every f***ing time'.

On Boxing Day's fixture at Brentford last year, Zohore scored an 87th minute goal to put City in front, only to concede a few moments later. After that game, a visibly fuming Warnock said: "This will never happen again,"

How right he was. Cardiff saw out the last few moments of the game yesterday in relative comfort. No panic, no rash clearances. Calm, composed and efficient, City coasted their way to victory to make it four wins out of four. In Cardiff teams of the past, the trait of concentration in the latter stages was rarely held.

Again, there was not one player who had a poor game. Every individual made a contribution to the team effort and, as I mentioned earlier, cohesion goes a long way here. 

I will give honourable mentions for Hoilett, Ralls and Mendez-Laing who, as a free transfer, is proving to be the signing-of-the-season on the evidence so far. 
Wolves fans didn't take the defeat too well. Painting Warnock as a footballing dinosaur with an out of date philosophy (I hate that word in football), they accused Cardiff of being cheats, dirty and cowardly. But it's very short-sighted to see it like that. 

City played some superb stuff yesterday. As often there's a crunching tackle, there's a piece of brilliance from Hoilett. As often there's a powering header from Sean Morrison, there's a one-two between Ralls and Damour. As often there's a long throw from Aron Gunnarsson, there's a Cruyff (Robson-Kanu?) turn from Zohore. 

There's a balance. Each of the defence, midfield and forwards possess power, technique and resilience. 

Cardiff were quicker and fitter. They completely outworked Wolves and if their fans think that pretty football is going to be enough to get you out of this league, then yesterday should offer some much-needed clarification. 

Wolves are a good side, but there's now a blueprint on how to beat them. I doubt Nuno would have faced too many teams like Cardiff under Warnock in his managerial career, but he can expect a few more this season. 

Riled, outfought, and out-thought: Wolves were well and truly Warnock'd. 

Monday, 14 August 2017

City Show Promotion Credentials as They Brush Aside Aston Villa

A few days ago, I wrote this piece questioning why Cardiff had largely been ignored when it came to the discussion of promotion contenders from this season’s Championship.

I went on to state that, after City’s 1-0 victory at Burton last weekend, some people may start to take notice of Neil Warnock’s side.

As impressive as an opening day win at the Pirelli Stadium was, it was the next league game, against ‘big-boys’ Aston Villa, that was going to offer a little more insight into how this season could eventually pan out for Cardiff.

After all, Burton operates on a small budget and are one of the favourites to go down. Villa, on the other hand, have spent £80m in two seasons and are one of the favourites to go up.

The first home game of a campaign always has a special feel about it, especially when the place is brimming with optimism. This, as well as the fact I starved myself of football this summer (Taff’s Well v Cardiff was the only 90 minutes I watched), made me the most excited I’ve been to go to a game since Bristol City last October.

This is when football is at its most frustrating and dangerous. No other sport can hand you a defeat just when you’re most confident of a win. Cardiff City seems to do this more often than any club.

But not this Saturday and not this side.

City produced one of the best performances I’ve seen in at home in years to dismantle Villa 3-0 in front of a good crowd of 24,???.

Before the game, as I did my ritual walk down Sloper Road for the first time since April, I was surprised, and intrigued, to see both Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Loic Damour starting (the pair excelled in my sole pre-season game at Taff’s Well).

If it’s one thing I’ve learned since last October, it’s to always trust Warnock.

I assumed he’d stick with roughly the same side as he did at Burton. The five at the back would counter Villa’s attacking ‘threat’, and Lee Tomlin given the task of unlocking a defence led by John Terry.

Instead, pace was the order of the day. And how effective it was.

Terry, Alan Hutton and James Chester are not the quickest defensive unit in the division, and Cardiff’s front three exposed it beautifully on Saturday.

Kenneth Zohore, fresh from an opening day winner was powerful and direct in his running, single-handedly bullying Villa players on times as he carried on his fine form. A lot was made before the game of how the Dane would cope against the experience of this Villa side. Very well, as it goes.

After previously failing to recapture his QPR and Blackburn form in a Cardiff shirt, Junior Hoilett had one of his best games since joining the club. It’s been one of the few frustrations in Warnock’s tenure that we haven’t seen Hoilett show consistently what he’s capable of, but Saturday will surely give him the confidence to kick on again.

Lastly, Mendez-Laing, a free transfer from Rochdale, put in a superb performance that not only resulted in a brace for the player, but left City fans drooling over the prospect of having a new icon at the club.
It’s quite baffling how he hasn’t moved up to this level before, and with no transfer outlay, it seems a shrewd acquisition by Warnock and his staff.

Damour, Joe Ralls and Aron Gunnarsson marshalled the midfield with ease against the likes of Henri Lansbury, once deemed the shining light of Championship. Having only recently arrived from another country, Damour has settled into the league well and looks comfortable on the ball.

I’ve slated Ralls on numerous occasions, especially in the Paul Trollope days. Not as naturally gifted as his predecessor Peter Whittingham, Ralls was sometimes on a hiding to nothing with me and perhaps other City fans. But since Warnock’s appointment, Ralls has been one of the standout performers in this City side. Calm and composed in possession on Saturday, he’s one of the keys to how successful this Cardiff squad will be.

The back four limited Scott Hogan to one glorious chance at 0-0 - a shot that was saved well by the solid Neil Etheridge (Monk from Mean Machine moment aside).

As games go, this was as spot-on as you could get at home.

Villa’s attack was made to look toothless by a sturdy defence, and with City’s attacking trio wreaking havoc at the other end, it was the perfect formula on a gorgeous day in the Welsh capital.

With the Bluebirds on top of the pile, it’s important to remember that it’s sadly early days. The Championship doesn’t end in August (otherwise Cardiff could’ve been relegated last year).

But it’s hard not to start getting excited about what City may be able to achieve this year. There are tough tests to come, starting with Warnock’s old-flame Sheffield United tomorrow, before travelling to face big-spenders Wolves next Saturday.

Tenacious, quick, physical, solid, and led by a man who has seen it all in this league. 

There won’t be many sides that fancy a trip to South Wales. 

Just ask Aston Villa.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Under The Radar - Why Cardiff Deserve to be Labelled Promotion Contenders

If you were a Championship newbie, keenly watching the major broadcasters to get a general idea of the division for the season ahead, you could be forgiven for thinking the league only had a handful of teams participating.
Sunderland, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, Leeds, and Wolves are this season’s chosen few. These are the sides chosen by Sky, BBC et. al., to form the base of their Championship coverage in 2017/18.
Having worked in newsrooms of the like, there are obvious reasons why these clubs have an appeal over certain others.
They’re perceived to be the ‘big’ clubs. They all have Premier League experience, all are relatively well-supported and, perhaps most importantly, have spent a fortune assembling what they hope to be successful squads.
Of the roughly £148m spent in the league thus far, these five clubs are responsible for 54% (£80m) of it. That number doesn’t include free transfers, with the likes of John Terry and Chris Samba adding again to Villa’s already staggering wage bill.
But if the Championship has taught us anything, it’s that you need more than a good side and a bulging wallet to make it out of this league.
The media, like the rest of us, enjoy making predictions, but there are far more than five sides worth mentioning.
Hardly a day goes by where someone doesn’t ask me how I think Cardiff will do in this campaign. My answer is always along the lines of:
‘Having got a decent squad and a talented, ambitious manager, there’s no reason why they can’t challenge for promotion. The only problem is: there are fans of around 14 other clubs saying the exact same thing.’
From Leeds to Reading, Fulham to Sheffield, there are thousands of fans hopeful of a promotion-winning season.
None more so than the City faithful.
Ahead of the opening day at Burton last week, I watched quite a few previews and I could count on one hand the times Cardiff were mentioned.
After the 1-0 win at the Pirelli Stadium, however, some pundits started describing Cardiff as ‘dark horses’ and that they were their ‘tip’ to sneak in the play-offs.
I’m certain that the fact the winner was scored by Kenneth Zohore, undoubtedly one of the league’s deadliest strikers at the end of the last season, helped ensure Cardiff’s place as contenders in the eyes of some.
It’s going to be while before the whole division starts to take the Bluebirds seriously, but I think that is going to suit Neil Warnock down to the ground.
In Warnock, Cardiff have a Championship stalwart. A man that not only knows the league as well as the layout of his house but also knows how to excel in it. With a proven track record, his experience is going to be vital in navigating another gruelling campaign.
On the pitch, though, if you have a quick run through of the Cardiff squad, it’s difficult to spot a glaring weakness area.
In Neil Etheridge, Lee Camp and Brian Murphy, the goalkeeping area is in a healthy state – a stark contrast to last season which featured the disappointing Ben Amos during Paul Trollope’s ill-fated reign.
Arguably Cardiff’s key bit of business this summer was retaining the services of Bruno Ecuele Manga, a centre-back far too good for this level. 
Captain Sean Morrison has often come under criticism for his defensive lapses and lack of composure, but next to Manga and the impressive Sol Bamba, he should be able to cope well. As a back three, it's as good as you'll get in this division.
With Lee Peltier, Jazz Richards, Matthew Connolly, Callum Paterson and Joe Bennett, the full-back areas are covered well, both going forward and defensively.
Peter Whittingham leaving was a day a lot of fans were dreading. A modern-day legend, Whittingham was an integral part of the club’s success in the last ten years. Despite playing a lesser part last year, his goals and assists won Cardiff an extra few points, ultimately ensuring a top-half finish.
A centre-midfield pairing of Aron Gunnarsson and Joe Ralls with the excellent Lee Tomlin further up is good enough to compete in this league. It has a good balance of legs, steel, creativity, and skill. However, with Stuart O’Keefe set to depart, Loic Damour and Greg Halford are the only other options. Although the former has impressed so far, he is untested and it leaves City a tad light in a key area. 
On the flanks, Cardiff have an embarrassment of riches. Even with the inevitable departure of Craig Noone (a move suitable for everyone), they have Junior Hoilett, Kadeem Harris, Matty Kennedy, Anthony Pilkington, and the impressive Nathaniel Mendez-Laing. 
Zohore and his health are no doubt key to how successful this season will be. A brutal campaign of 46 matches, it's a big ask of any player to keep fit but Danny Ward could be the saving grace this season. Ward, having had a good year in a struggling Rotherham side in 16/17, could be the one to chip in with the goals should Zohore miss any games.

As well as these two, Cardiff also have the youthful Ibrahim Meite and Fred Gounongbe (remember him?), although whether they are of standard or not remains to be seen.

When you look at that team, City have more than enough to at least warrant being talked about. 

Villa manager Steve Bruce said that he was envious of the way this Cardiff side has gelled and expected a 'typical Neil Warnock team' when the clubs meet tomorrow afternoon.

Warnock's teams have always been tough to beat. Physical, strong and resolute are all traits that his current side have. But there's much more to them than that. They have the hard-nosed character, but they also possess pace, flair and huge technical skill in Tomlin.

23rd when Trollope was sacked, Cardiff ended up finishing 12th - one place above Villa. The 'Warnock effect' has been in effect for some time, and having had a full pre-season with his own players, it could go on for a while yet. 

Although the broadcasters won't say that.