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.