Cardiff City and Fulham are basically the same team. Relegated together, promoted together, vying for a return to the Premier League against one another. It’s not a geographical rivalry, it’s circumstantial year after year and we never like to disappoint. Andre Schurrle fizzed home a banger last term and so did Ryan Babel – blasting the target with peachy wonder strikes is simply following tradition.
Well, that statement about us being equal may be slightly unjust because the Whites actually play proper football rather than a rugby/lacrosse hybrid version of the beautiful game and on Tuesday evening, at the Cardiff City Stadium, the Whites dispatched the Bluebirds in the Play-Off semi-final first leg with a newfangled strategical prototype called ‘giving it a ruddy good go because we have to actually win.’
Post-match, Scott Parker spoke of self-confidence, belief and solidarity during these testing times and his mature, measured outlook was soothing to the mind and soul. Those doubts, insecurities surrounding his competency, they’re gradually dissipating but I won’t be satisfied until we reach the Play-Off final and whatever happens there, raw emotions without fans, will suffice.
Sense the Intent
Fulham scoffed down their Weetabix and firmed a double eye shot of Red Bull because each and every representative of ours played a game of which we’d never seen under Parker’s burgeoning command. It was almost supernatural. Cardiff brandished tangible threats but the Whites held the hosts at ransom and to a man, we equalled and then eclipsed the Bluebirds’ rigorous work-rate through grit, steel and perseverance.
A regular feature of Fulham’s recent outings is a subtle lack of intent, the burning want and desire to press home our advantage but on Tuesday, all three departments shared the same insatiable hunger to succeed. Harmonised bravery, a unification of occasion and magnitude, that’s what spurred the Whites onto victory away from home against a resurgent outfit. Even as we progressed with the ball, sequences were purposeful, not ponderous. When we shadowed Cardiff’s counters we were assured, not shaken. Whilst we scoured for an opportunity we stopped at nothing, no deterrents, just unflagging tenacity in our approach.
We berate half-arsed outings, we scorn complacency and it’s about damn time I, on behalf of those that share similar opinions, bestow some credit upon Parker’s shrewd game management. Executed extraordinarily, Parker organised his side to retain, constrain and strangulate Cardiff and with 66% possession, we actually made things look fairly easy, carefree and above all else, cohesive. It may not have seemed so from our sofas, but looking back on our overall performance, I’d say it was our strongest of the season so far. That’s just a glimpse, a sneak peak to what this team is genuinely capable of, running at full capacity, taking the initiative and moving forwards, instead of looking over our shoulder.
Onomah’s Ice-Cold Sorcery
And to think, when he first joined the Whites I poked fun at Joshua Onomah, the spindly, unobservant rookie that simply couldn’t hack it. Eating words with my bare hands is all I do nowadays, like the sorry mug I am for doubting his unparalleled abilities. Brawn, Championship know-how, Cardiff’s midfield consists of both and more but Marlon Pack, Joe Ralls, Lee Tomlin, they couldn’t quell 23-year-old’s power and panache, Onomah was the higher-ranking contender and it really showed.
Chipping in with the nitty, the gritty and the pretty, Onomah made his physical presence known whilst upholding a shimmering standard with the ball under his supervision. Leandro Bacuna thought he had the minerals but I’ve never seen a grown man fold in such a way, Onomah had him on strings and that glare literally meant “don’t f*ck with me”. Onomah’s earned his stripes at this level, he’s weathered adversity but there’s a natural-born leader in him.
Enough of the sentimental Mills and Boon blather, that goal was hardcore, adulterated debauchery. Was it one of the dirtiest solo efforts I’ve seen? You bet your bottom dollar it was. The audacity, the swivel, the tek, Onomah left Cardiff’s entire back four for dead and I was very nearly on the phone to the police to report it. Turning Sean Morrison and co. to stone, the composure Onomah showcased before stroking beyond Alex Smithies was nothing short of superb. Thierry Henry would’ve blushed, it was ice cold sorcery and I’ve become fond of watching opponents get sold for pennies at the mercy of Onomah’s gifted, unforgiving swagger.
Hector’s Fine Margins
Take nothing away from our offensive ranks, not a sausage, but without Micheal Hector out there fighting our corner at the back, the tone of this article could’ve been mildly depressing, I’ll say that much. The Jamaica international’s found his form just when we need it, just after the return he appeared a slight shadow of himself but now he’s that hard-hitting, full-blooded authoritarian and we are truly lucky to have his reliable services on tap.
Pitting himself against Robert Glatzel, Hector didn’t give an inch. Aerially, Cardiff’s 6’4 striker was second best under the centre-half’s domineering shadow and if the German opened his stride, he was duly shut down within a flash, no search warrant. Matching Cardiff’s muscle was key, they target physical weaknesses and pray upon them with barrages of long balls and rangy throw ins although Hector ain’t no chump, he’s a defensive bossman that sticks to his own rules in big moments and small instances.
There’s nothing innocuous about his heroic last-ditch challenge to thwart Glatzel. Bacuna’s wild strike offset Marek Rodak and the stopper’s improvised save bobbled into the attacker path. Reaching the ball was paramount, it was either that or conceding a certain penalty and just before the ball bobbled over the line, Hector scooped danger away by a whisker and banished the opener from materialising for the Bluebirds. Hector built a springboard for the Whites to pounce from and our battle would have been uphill if it wasn’t for our trusty enforcer’s damage-limiting exploits. All hail that magic bloody hat of his.
Neeskens Nets Another
We’ve known this for some while now, Neeskens Kebano is a verified baller and after months, even seasons on the sidelines, waiting for his chance to rubber-stamp his credentials on a regular basis, the intricate winger’s hitting his unique potential in the first-team proper and it comes with a heaped side portion of proficiency. Side chops, step overs, shoulder dips, but there’s definitely more to his skill set than what meets the eye.
Kebano’s direct nature causes utter havoc and for that poor, unfortunate guy Bacuna, again, his evening was ruined by the 28-year-old’s untraceable movement. He didn’t rest, not for a second, and his intelligence with possession is beneficial to our cause in the final-third. Interchanging with Tom Cairney, Onomah and Harrison Reed (who was also otherworldly), Kebano surged into advantageous areas, setting the cat amongst the pigeons with virtually very touch he administered.
Can we also talk about 3 successful free-kicks in a row? 4 goals in 3 outings? Okay, If we must. Kebano’s been binge watching David Beckham’s best set-piece bits and I’m delighted to say he’s now got enough material to release his own. Where is this technique coming from? He treats free-kicks like penalties, his stance and posture guarantees fruition and Smithies must’ve blinked as Kebano arced it into his net, it was over so swiftly and it dipped so perfectly. This rich vein of form he finds himself in spells deep trouble for fullbacks, whether they’re on Cardiff’s, Brentford’s or Swansea City’s books, it doesn’t matter to him, his impact will spread them across the deck like room temperature Lurpak. That’s all I’m here for.
No Choking Permitted
Tuesday evening was enlightening. It’s given us a renewed optimism for Thursday with a two-goal barrier between us and the Bluebirds and we’re entitled to gloat, but we have to be sure of ourselves. We cannot let our guard down at the penultimate hurdle. The pressure was supposedly on us in South Wales but now, with a somewhat comfortable margin to protect, we can’t allow the weight of expectation to take its devastating toll.
Cardiff will be reeling after falling to a defeat at home and Harris will have his men gunning for a fightback, so Parker will have to prepare his camp for another 90-minute slug fest. Mind games will surface, nerves will shatter and Fulham’s fortitude will be examined, make no mistake of that. Cardiff can play nasty, they can grind teams down and there’s venom in their strike force – they don’t need a lot to retaliate, a sniff is all it takes to land a substantial bite so caution, as it was before the first leg, must be observed.
We also require key members to turn up, too. We’re 1 meeting away from Wembley Way once again, 180 minutes (disregarding extra time) from reaching the Premier League after a season’s vacation and I’m taking to Cairney, to Hector, to Aleksandar Mitrovic in fact, I’m talking to all that wear black and white and I’m imploring them to bring their best offerings to the table. Brentford are faltering, Swansea are penetrable and Cardiff, as we’ve discovered, hate chasing the ball and shipping worldies. No choking permitted.