International break is over, and that can only mean one thing. The club matches have returned. On Saturday, Chelsea welcome visitors from Wales in the form of newly-promoted Cardiff City. Matters off the pitch sometimes garner the headlines more than matters on it, and Cardiff’s headlines over the break have been interesting to say the least. Run-ins with the ownership, changing of the management structure, and other decisions have left manager Malky Mackay considering his position. It’s not like owner Vincent Tan hasn’t already stepped on a number of toes by changing Cardiff’s colours to red instead of blue.
As far as matters on the pitch, Cardiff have amassed 7 points in the league thus far. That point total is evidence of the fact that Cardiff’s form has been up and down. Some moments, they look like a brilliant side with great spirit. Other moments, they look like a side bound for relegation. Mackay does get some credit for both and a bit of criticism. While wins over Manchester City and Fulham were good performances, more could have been expected from Cardiff in battles with Hull City and Newcastle.
However, Cardiff don’t look like the worst side of the three promoted teams, and with the money they’ve spent on a few quality Premier League players, I would expect them to threaten to stay out of relegation if they can get the behind-the-scenes situation under control.
Chelsea come back from the international break rather unscathed. Jose Mourinho’s only absentees are Ashley Cole and Andre Schurrle. Cole missed both international matches with a rib injury picked up against Norwich, and Schurrle picked up a small muscle strain with Germany and won’t be risked.
However, Mourinho does welcome back Fernando Torres from injury and suspension, and the Spaniard will hope to be in the starting 11 on Saturday after his last performance against Tottenham. Ironically, he was injured 30 seconds into the match against Steaua Bucharest trying to make a tackle when he landed awkwardly, twisting his knee.
Now on to the thoughts about Cardiff.
Malkay Mackay should be sitting around and wondering what the ownership is doing because, by and large, he’s got Cardiff playing better than expected.
I don’t think ownership is doing Cardiff any favors by creating tension behind the scenes amongst the backroom staff. It’s beginning to unsettle Mackay a bit, and I think he’s the right man for the job, at least for this season. Keep in mind that he comfortably brought them up from a rather competitive Championship last season and he’s taken them to two results that were bonus points – the draw with Everton and the win over Manchester City.
The fact is that this Cardiff squad probably is the middle team amongst the promoted sides based on talent alone. Hull City added massively to their squad by adding Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore, but Cardiff didn’t do poorly by getting Steven Caulker and Peter Odemwingie.
The problem for Cardiff this season is that the Premier League has a number of sides that have been well established in the league for a number of seasons. Of the teams around them right now, the only established Premier League side that is definitely in turmoil is Sunderland, pending what Gus Poyet does going forward.
I thought at the beginning of the season that all three promoted teams might go straight back down, but Mackay’s Cardiff and Steve Bruce’s Hull might make me rethink that.
Cardiff are team that are capable of playing expansive football, but they also make life difficult by not being as solid defensively.
If there’s one real criticism of Cardiff, it’s that they can’t stop goals from going in their own net. In 9 games this season in all competitions, Cardiff have only managed to keep 2 clean sheets, and one was against Accrington Stanley in the Capital One Cup.
They’re a team that likes to try to win the ball in midfield and build play, but the problem is that counterattacking sides have given them some issues. If the midfield can’t win the ball quickly, their back line as a whole isn’t strong enough to make up for those players being exposed, and goals are scored.
However, they do pressure an awful lot in midfield, and that was evidenced by how they dealt with City’s midfield of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho. The in-depth discussion of those two will be talked about next week, but suffice it to say, Cardiff exposed a few real holes in that partnership by pressing them high and countering quickly.
They have the potential to score lots of goals because they do have creativity going forward. The question is that back line and whether they can stop the opposition’s attacks, particularly their fullbacks.
Cardiff’s two top strikers have both found new life in Wales.
Both Fraizer Campbell and Peter Odemwingie have seemingly found a new lease on their careers at Cardiff City. The joint top goal scorers have both had their ups and downs at previous clubs but have found a home playing for the Bluebirds, particularly this season.
Ever since the days at Manchester United and his subsequent sale to Sunderland, Fraizer Campbell has really struggled to live up to the hype that surrounded him as a youngster. His time at Sunderland was largely a failure, being relegated to the bench and managing just 6 goals in his 58 appearances. Even last year at Cardiff, he failed to really make a mark, making just 12 appearances for the side.
However, this season, he appears to be rejuvenated by his return to the Premier League, netting twice for the Bluebirds and looking like a genuine goal-scoring threat as he was believed to be when he came through the ranks at United.
Odemwingie, on the other hand, is better known for sitting in the car park at QPR on deadline day last January and his many run-ins with the Nigerian football federation. The former saw him essentially banished from the West Brom first team and marked the end of his tenure with the Baggies.
However, there isn’t a doubt that he’s a class player, and he netted a goal that gave them hope against Newcastle and nearly spurned them on for an equaliser. Between the two of them, Cardiff do possess a threat in attack, and that’s not even mentioning the emotional leader of the side, Craig Bellamy.
Now for two Chelsea-related thoughts that have been on everyone’s mind; who is the best striker? Ba is the latest to be looked at.
This is really the question that has been asked ever since the departure of Didier Drogba two years ago, and we’re no closer to finding a real answer until tomorrow, perhaps.
Demba Ba was the latest to get his audition for the job, and while he played well against Norwich, I thought he presented a few small difficulties to our side that almost made us one dimensional and won’t work against better sides.
First of all, Ba likes to play on the shoulder of the last defender. That’s great and all if you have a player behind you who can supplement as a central striker or is your strike partner, but as a lone striker, it only works if you’re not required to help build the attack. Against Norwich, they were sitting high initially, so that worked well for Ba to play over the top. But as the match progressed, Norwich started sitting deeper and giving him less space to run into and less space to play the ball through.
While I thought he presented a danger and good centre forward play early, I thought his effect on the match waned as Norwich sat deeper once they got the lead, and that exposed Ba’s main flaw. While he’s great when you can play the ball through the line or over the top, he’s not as good at bringing the midfield into play and linking the attack from deep when it’s required.
Against teams that play high, that style works, especially against lesser sides. But against teams that are your equals and teams that sit deep and constrict that space behind, Ba’s effectiveness isn’t there, just because he’s lacking in the link-up play department.
If our strikers aren’t firing, why is Romelu Lukaku on loan when he’s scoring bags of goals?
This is the ultimate question on everyone’s mind, and it’s something I’ve meant to comment on before but kept forgetting about.
I, personally, am of the belief that Lukaku’s loan was the best thing for both parties despite scoring more goals than the rest of our strikers combined this season. First thing to consider is whether or not he’d get regular playing time at Chelsea, i.e. whether his play would merit it, and the second thing to look at is whether playing at Everton under Roberto Martinez is really a benefit to his progress.
With the current strikers, I think Lukaku would be second choice at best, because I’m still convinced that Mourinho thinks that both Eto’o and Torres represent better options up front and more diverse striking options. That’s not to say Lukaku wouldn’t get a game, but it wouldn’t be regularly. Lukaku was a more physical option and a more direct one in his current style of play.
It’s Martinez’s style that will eventually fix the few holes in the game of the 20-year-old Belgian. To look at the holes he has in his game, look at the game against Manchester City and ignore the play that generated his goal. Overall, Lukaku demonstrated a great ability to hold the play up and bring others into play when coming deeper and with his back to goal and brought a real threat up front, but his ability to play the intricate passes on his first or second touch in tight spaces was lacking.
For me, that’s the reason he’s out on loan – to correct his weakness in playing tight, intricate football that isn’t playing a direct ball forward to him. With the attacking trio that we can play behind a striker, playing balls to a Drogba-like striker doesn’t need to happen. For that, your centre forward needs to be able to play passes and not just focus on the goal. In that sense, Martinez is perfect because that is the type of style that he encourages, and Lukaku will get much more time to hone his craft there than at Chelsea.
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