The Thursday Preview: Cardiff Vs Middlesbrough
It has been a while since we previewed a Championship game, instead focusing on the no less riveting events further down the ladder. But which to choose? Two of last year’s big-hitters, Leeds and Reading, meet at Elland Road this weekend, but neither have done much to grab the attention so far this term. Meanwhile, events off the field would overshadow any assessment of Sunday’s Solent derby between Portsmouth and Southampton. No, the weekend’s most intriguing XI vs XI should take place at Cardiff City Stadium, between the eponymous hosts – in third place before kick-off – and fourth-placed Middlesbrough.
The home side have featured more than a few times on TTU this season, and much of what my fellow bloggers have written was in evidence in last week’s 0-0 draw with Millwall. Under Malky Mackay’s leadership, Cardiff are more recognizably a member of the Football League, with an emphasis on organization and hard graft. Don’t mistake this for criticism, though: for all the sparkle provided by the likes of Craig Bellamy last season, Dave Jones’ Premier League refugees failed to produce, while Mackay’s version has been pleasingly consistent, to the point of going the last 11 games unbeaten. Perhaps under instruction to rein in the excesses of previous campaigns, Mackay has concentrated on the basics, rebalancing the defence and bringing in energetic but far from uncultured wide men in Craig Conway and Don Cowie – the latter, in this blogger’s humble opinion, being one of the most influential players in the division.
Still, some of the stardust lingers in the form of Peter Whittingham and Kenny Miller, and, for all their newly acquired durability, Cardiff remain potent in front of goal. Although the chances were few and far between for once last weekend, the Bluebirds have only failed to score in two of this season’s 21 league games.
Much of what is written above could also go for Tony Mowbray’s `Boro, who have surpassed pre-season expectations of another transitional year. As Steve Welsh of the superb miniboro.com raised in a Conversation with Lanterne Rouge, much if not all of the credit should go to the manager, as the side remains little altered since the doomed (doomed!) Project Strachan was shelved. Instead, the returning local hero has restored the likes of Nicky Bailey and Barry Robson to somewhere near the form displayed at their previous clubs, while also digging Joe Bennett and Marvin Emnes out of the trash. Emnes, in particular, has called Wee Gordie’s judgment into question, with 10 goals in all competitions.
A couple of morale-restoring wins against an in-form Bristol City and at home to Brighton will have put a late November defeat to Fat Sam’s Hammers into perspective, while their impressive tally of six victories away from the Riverside will give the `Boro hope of damaging Cardiff’s hopes as they did on their last visit to the seat of Welsh political power. Their opponents are a different proposition now, though: a 2-0 home win.