Massive Monday as Cardiff and Norwich take centre stage
The script was already pretty good. The perennial promotion contenders tasked with seeing off the newly-promoted upstarts. The spiky Scouser against the precocious Paisleyite. West versus East. Blue and yellow. A tale of two Cities. Bellamy and Bothroyd face Holt and Hoolahan. Now it’s even better. This evening, a remarkable double-header takes place.
First up, Cardiff City host Middlesbrough in a banana skin of gigantic proportions. Tony Mowbray’s side recently put four goals past play-off hopefuls Hull City in their own back yard and Boro will be in the mood to spoil another party when they travel to South Wales. This is a team that have fallen woefully short of expectations, both during their sluggish start and the infrequent glimpses of form they have shown since Mowbray took charge. Hopes were high that the former Boro legend would spark a run towards the top half of the table.
In hindsight, even a play-off place would not have been unthinkable if they had hit their stride earlier. That bright patch has come far too late and now all Boro can do is cause misery for others. Scott McDonald has five goals in his last five games, Julio Arca has scored in each of Middlesbrough’s last two outings and there has been just one defeat in ten for Mowbray’s men.
Cardiff will have their work cut out. The good news? Middlesbrough haven’t beaten a top six side since December. The bad news? Yep, you’ve guessed it – that side was Cardiff.
The return fixture is a must-win for the Bluebirds, for whom there may be other good news if McDonald is not passed fit to play for the visitors. Even if he does start, Dave Jones must be confident that his team can outscore Boro. Cardiff are unbeaten in eight and have scored 20 times during that period, including nine goals in their last three home games.
In short, they are coming good at the right time and Craig Bellamy appears to have grown in stature since his late winner at the Liberty Stadium in early February – perhaps not in terms of goals (Bellamy has scored just twice since then), but certainly in the way he deputised for the injured Michael Chopra in a more central role. It may sound surprising given the character references he would receive from some, but Bellamy’s presence must fill Cardiff’s youngsters with confidence. With Chopra now returning to full fitness and the Bluebirds already firing on all cylinders, goals are almost guaranteed.
The timing of these two games is perfect for the neutral, if not the nerves of two sets of fans tantalisingly close to the top flight. Cardiff know that defeat to Middlesbrough would give Norwich an immediate opportunity to seal promotion at Fratton Park. Avoiding defeat would take them second – a draw means they go level on points with the Canaries with a better goal difference by a margin of one, while a victory would temporarily see Cardiff claim a two-point advantage.
Whatever happens at the Cardiff City Stadium, it will make for compulsive viewing when Paul Lambert’s Norwich City trot out on the south coast to face Portsmouth in the second live game of the night. While, on reflection, they may not be that similar to Manchester United after all, Norwich have certainly fostered a winning mentality among their squad over the past couple of years. Who would have thought that they would be within two games of the Premier League when they trudged off the Carrow Road pitch in dejected fashion, having lost the opening game of last season 7-1 to Colchester United in the third tier?
It truly is a remarkable transformation, and one about which many Norwich fans are still pinching themselves. Of course there are lingering doubts among their supporters. They could still mess things up from their current pole position to secure second place and maybe it takes an unbiased, uncaring neutral voice to declare at this nerve-racking stage that they look like the genuine article.
Portsmouth have dropped off slightly in recent weeks, having been one of countless teams to threaten a late dash for the play-offs. It has been almost two months since Pompey lost a game in which they kept eleven men on the pitch, but they have suffered three defeats in that time – Ricardo Rocha collecting first-half red cards at both Cardiff and Reading and Hayden Mullins having been dismissed in the second half of a 3-0 home defeat to Coventry.
Such ill discipline on the part of the home side would be manna from heaven for Norwich, who face a tough assignment when visiting a ground on which Portsmouth have lost just five league games this season. The good news for Norwich is the expected absence of Liam Lawrence and Dave Kitson, particularly as Pompey’s threadbare squad is one of the worst in the division at coping with the unavailability of key players.
Norwich have lost just once since early February and have scored 25 times in their last nine games. Multiply that kind of goalscoring form out over an entire season and a team would end up netting over 125 goals. As it is, Norwich currently have 80. Depending on events earlier in the evening, they may only need one more to reach the Premier League.