BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
The next preview for the upcoming season of Barclays Premier League football features Cardiff City, who after years of heartbreak finally reached the Promised Land by winning the Championship.
Cardiff have reached the big time under the astute management of Malky Mackay and the largesse of Malaysian billionaire Vincent Tan. Tan made a controversial decision to change the club’s colours from blue to red at the beginning of last season, sparking outrage among the fan base. However, not many Bluebird fans were complaining after Cardiff stormed to their best ever start in a league campaign, never relinquishing the lead on the way to promotion.
Part of the excitement for the new season is a first Welsh derby in the history of the Premier League against Swansea. Cardiff fans have watched in envy as Swansea have settled in the top division winning over neutrals with beautiful flowing football. To expect the same from the Bluebirds would disappoint many, as Mackay’s men play a more direct brand of football. Despite pre-season being a bit of a mixed bag so far, optimism abounds for the Premier League’s newest team.
On defence: David Marshall is the undisputed number one. Ever present in the Championship for Cardiff since 2011, Marshall was brilliant between the sticks managing 19 clean sheets in their victorious campaign. If the Scotsman can even keep half those number of clean sheets, Cardiff should be able to survive in the Premier League.
Cardiff have a duo of well-established fullbacks. Matthew Connolly became first choice right-back immediately after signing for the club last summer. Connolly isn’t among the more attack-minded fullbacks in the league, but is defensively steady with his well-timed tackles a crucial asset against speedy wingers. On the opposite flank Andrew Taylor has cut down the amount of mistakes that were a prominent feature of his early years during Middlesbrough’s stay in the Premier League. Taylor is also useful in attack, often operating as an auxiliary winger when the need arises. Kevin McNaughton provides reliable back up at right-back and the signing of the versatile John Brayford ensures that Cardiff are well stocked in the position. However if Taylor were to be injured, then Mackay might have to resort to the academy or use Peter Wittingham as a makeshift left-back.
In the centre of defence, captain Mark Hudson and Ben Turner had an excellent partnership in front of Marshall last season. Hudson is an excellent reader of the game, while Turner’s aerial prowess in the air made him a perfect ally. However, Mackay will have to break that partnership, as Cardiff completed the excellent acquisition of Steven Caulker from Tottenham last week. It was a move that caught the rest of the league by surprise, and in signing Caulker not only have Cardiff improved an already strong defence, but have also signalled their ambition to stay and grow in the Premier League.
The midfield: The Premier League experience of Peter Wittingham will be absolutely vital for Cardiff’s hopes during the season. Wittingham has been a mainstay for the Bluebirds, compiling 270 appearances for Cardiff. His error-prone younger days at Aston Villa have long been forgotten as Wittingham has developed into a calm operator at the base of midfield. He acts as an excellent shield in front of the centre-backs, and his intricate left foot passing ensures the team has good rhythm as they transition from defence to attack.
Alongside Wittingham is the speedy and energetic presence of Icelandic international Aron Gunnarsson. Gunnarsson is not that different from his compatriot Gylfi Sigurdsson albeit with a better passing range. The midfielder’s contribution of eight goals was crucial in the promotion winning campaign. Unfortunately for Cardiff, Gunnarsson got injured on international duty and is unlikely to be ready in time for the start of the new season.
During pre-season Mackay has been playing Kim Bo-Kyung alongside Wittingham, and the South Korean has repaid his managers faith by scoring three goals from open play. If Kim can maintain his form in the regular season, it reduces the impact of Gunnarsson’s absence, and provides greater depth and tactical flexibility upon the Icelander’s return to the first team. Cardiff are still trying to add to their midfield, and if their ambitious bid for Etienne Capoue succeeds, it will be a significant boost to their prospects for the season.
On the attack: Cardiff had a decent output of 72 goals in the Championship last season, as their midfielders and forwards shared the scoring burden. However, no player hit double figures, and Mackay has already made some signings to rectify the situation.
Craig Noone and Craig Conway were deployed on the wings last season, with the former more penetrative and direct, while there are substantial doubts about the latter’s ability to deliver in the Premier League. Noone chipped in with nine assists and seven goals, and if he can replicate that form, Cardiff’s attack will be in fine fettle. As Mackay settles on the 4-3-3 that is so prominent across the league, it’s highly likely that Craig Bellamy will take up a position on either wing at the expense of Conway. Bellamy’s role at Cardiff is a true feel-good story, as the forward has been good enough to play in the Premier League, but stayed at Cardiff with the sole intention of helping his hometown club get promoted.
Mackay will be counting on Frazier Campbell to maintain the goal scoring form the forward has shown since he joined the club in January. Campbell notched seven goals in 12 appearances, and in tandem with the new Danish striker Andreas Cornelius, Mackay will hope for a better goal conversation rate than last season.
Conclusion: Cardiff are bound to be extremely hard to beat at the Cardiff City Stadium. In a manner similar to Swansea, not many visiting teams will relish the raucous support of the Welsh fans in Cardiff. Furthermore Vincent Tan has backed his words with actions, as the arrival of Steven Caulker is unlikely to be the last ambitious signing before the transfer window closes. Malky Mackay has fostered an excellent team spirit coupled with a tactical identity, and there is a good blend of experience and youth in the squad. There will inevitably be bumps along the way, but Cardiff City are certainly the best placed amongst the newly promoted teams to survive, and possibly even prosper in the Premier League.