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. 

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