Cardiff City head to the West Midlands this weekend to play Wolves in their first top of the table clash in over four years. It is a clash between 1st and 2nd (Cardiff and Wolves respectively), providing the 2017/18 season its first significant fixture. After a perfect start to the season, it will be a really big test for Neil Warnock’s Bluebirds. Big spending Wolves have made a superb start to life under the management of Nuno, playing a brand of slick, possession-based football that has enabled them to match Cardiff’s 100% winning record.
Wolves have been transformed in the past 12 months from lower table fodder into promotion candidates through the involvement of Chinese investors Fosun International. Their links to super-agent Jorge Mendes mean a number of high-profile (and big money) signings have been made. Helder Costa was the first to arrive last season for a then club record fee (around £13 million). This season the club have added Ruben Neves from Porto for a staggering £15.8 million (a record fee in English football outside the top flight), as well as Atletico Madrid loanee Diogo Jota.
Where you stand in terms of the intentions of signing these players, who, let’s be honest, are way in advance of Wolves’ status as a club, as well as representing a significant gamble with the club’s finances, is largely irrelevant. The players are here and on the basis of the bookies’ pre-season odds and the early season form, they make Wolves a formidable outfit and serious promotion contenders.
Ruben Neves, in particular, is a head-scratcher. It is unlikely the Championship has enjoyed a player of his high technical standard ever before. At 20-years-old he is considered one of the most exciting young playmakers on the continent, has already been capped by Portugal’s senior national team and played in the Champion’s League; not to mention the interest courted from a number of European football’s elite clubs in the past. Jorge Mendes is the reason he has ended up at Wolves, but why is the mystery that remains unsolved.
In football terms, Cardiff will have to find a way to shut him down. He has quickly become Wolves’ key player, putting on a masterful display in Wolves’ dominant 2-0 win at Derby last weekend; also showing his shooting prowess with a long-range effort to open the Wolves scoring in Tuesday night’s 3-2 win at Hull City. It seems likely Loic Damour will once again be deployed in an advanced midfield role with the specific job of trying to reduce Neves’ influence at source.
Wolves are massive favourites to win the match, but that won’t bother Neil Warnock very much. Cardiff’s historic start to the season means they are probably in credit in terms of expected points. Neil Warnock is unlikely to have planned for three wins from the first three fixtures; 5-7 points a more plausible target before the season started. In this sense Cardiff can go to Wolves with very little to lose. Observers will look at Wolves’ start and find it impossible not to be impressed by three wins against three teams expected to challenge at the top (Middlesbrough, Derby, Hull); whereas Cardiff have played a newly promoted team and one of the favourites for relegation. Wolves will be expected to kick on from here; the perception will be that Cardiff’s strong start will soon even out as they slip back toward their anticipated position in mid-table.
It’s not a make or break game for either side, but it is definitely a freebie for Cardiff. A defeat is not devastating and doesn’t mean Cardiff haven’t enjoyed an excellent start. Once again the performance level will be more important than the result at this stage of the season. If Cardiff can maintain the standard of performance we’ve seen so far this season there will be little to worry about going into any game. They will lose games, but if they can stay consistent to the process and performance levels of the first three league matches, the Bluebirds will be right in the mix throughout the campaign.
With Cardiff expected to take a good away following, it should be another exciting game. It is exactly the sort of game and challenge Warnock thrives on. He will have the players believing they can go to Molineux and get a result against a more star-studded line-up, and he won’t be shy in letting the City players know that the world doesn’t fancy them and is waiting for the inevitable collapse to occur.
There also an interesting subplot involving the in-form Nathaniel Mendez-Laing. The Cardiff forward was on Wolves’ books as a youngster, but failed to make the grade. On Channel Five’s Championship highlights show ex-Wolves frontman Chris Iwelumo said Mendez-Laing was seen as a talented player at Molineux, but one that lacked consistency. He would no doubt enjoy the opportunity to prove any remaining doubters wrong and continue his red-hot start to the season.
The build-up to the game hasn’t been helped with transfer speculation around Cardiff this week. Hull have once again bid for Kenneth Zohore, only to be rebuffed by the Bluebirds after a pathetic £10 million offer. Brighton manager Chris Hughton came to watch Zohore in Tuesday night’s win over Sheffield United; Burnley are also looking for a new striker and there have been reports their manager Sean Dyche is a fan of the Great Dane.
Cardiff are holding firm at the moment, Warnock insistent that Zohore will not be going anywhere unless a top 10 Premier League comes in with a bid around £20 million. Fortunately, Zohore isn’t agitating for a move and seems content at Cardiff. He has recently signed an improved deal and it is believed his relationship with Warnock is a big factor in keeping him in South Wales. If Zohore continues the rate of improvement we have seen in the past year he will eventually outgrow Cardiff, this much is obvious. For now, though, the player seems to content to stay and continue his development under the manager who probably saved his career.
On top of the Zohore speculation, left back Joe Bennett has been linked with a move to Fulham. Warnock admitted the London club had met the release fee in Bennett’s contract and the club were obliged to let him speak to Fulham. Rumours have been rife on social media since the news broke, with many Fulham fans taking it as a done deal. Bennett did train with Cardiff today and there have been whispers this evening that Bennett has rejected Fulham’s offer. From their side, Fulham supporters are claiming Bennett demanded in excess of £30k per week and the move broke down; Cardiff fans are stating contrarily that Bennett turned down Fulham’s ‘double your money’ offer.
There is no doubt the draw of London and potentially bigger wages would be a big thing to consider for Bennett. However, at Cardiff he is the first choice left back, there is a fantastic team spirit at the club nowadays and Bennett enjoys a good rapport with the Cardiff support. I’m sure he did, but Bennett only had to have a word with his team-mate Jazz Richards to see that a move to Craven Cottage may not be quite all it is cracked up to be.
Speaking as a person who lived in London for five years: it ain’t all that, Joe!
On a genuinely positive note, Neil Warnock completed some transfer business of his own; recruiting another forward in the shape of Omar Bogle from Wigan Athletic. Cardiff have reportedly paid around £1 million for Bogle, which is a decent price considering the player’s age, potential for growth and the fact that 12 months ago there were a number of clubs (including Premier League clubs) chasing his signature (before he opted for Wigan).
On paper he brings similar attributes as Zohore in term of height and physique. His style is very much what you would call a ‘Warnock player’: strong, fast, hard-working and with a penchant for the spectacular; he is the blend of graft and craft that typifies the Cardiff boss’ approach to football. Bogle is expected to compete with Danny Ward as back-up to Zohore, rather than being a pre-emptive move to replace the Dane.
Fingers crossed it stays that way and the sooner September 1st arrives the better.