Part of a weekly feature, written for WalesOnline.
Cardiff City are on a roll. Neil Warnock has stimulated a feel-good factor at the club that has for too long been absent. The gloom of relegation has disappeared and the future looks promising.
Indeed, Cardiff’s 5-0 rout of Rotherham was testament to the confidence that is flowing throughout the squad.
City played with conviction and purpose and made it three wins on the spin, having scored a mouth-watering 11 goals in the process.
The Bluebirds now have an opportunity on Saturday to really show how far they have come under Warnock; beat a play-off chasing Fulham and fans can begin to allow hopes of a top six finish to flirt with their imagination.
Here’s the lowdown the opposition.
Style of Play
Cardiff have matched up against Fulham twice this season, drawing 2-2 in August and suffering defeat in the FA Cup third round. On both occasions, it was clear to see that Fulham had created a distinct identity.
Slavisa Jokanovic, the Fulham boss, instructs his men to build up from the back, with the London club’s game based upon possession and ball retention.
Despite the fact Fulham are the away side, Cardiff can expect to concede the majority of possession: Jokanovic’s men boast an impressive average of 58% possession on their travels.
Fulham’s possession-focused football is not just futile passing at the back, however. They play on the front foot, working triangles and utilising first time passes, which they combine with deft movement to unravel defences.
City, whilst employing a deep defensive line, will still have to check runs in behind and refrain from getting sucked into crowded areas – it is this that then creates space for Fulham’s forwards to run into.
Slapped with a £20 million price tag after several clubs showed interest in him in January, it is clear that Cairney is a prized asset at Craven Cottage. It is not hard to see why.
Seven goals and seven assists mark him out as Fulham’s creative spark. Cairney will shift and shimmy to wriggle away from his marker and has an eye for a pass, and a goal for that matter. It is likely Warnock will ask Joe Ralls or Aron Gunnarsson to wrestle with the ex-Blackburn man and negate his impact on the match.
The 28 year-old is well known for being a handful in the Championship. Martin leads the Fulham line and adopts the role of target man – not in a traditional route one sense, but as a player from which players can feed the ball into and receive back. These sharp exchanges of passes are a prominent feature of Fulham’s attack.
Martin has scored nine times in the league this season and his savvy finishing means that City defenders should not allow the striker an inch of space.
Martin has recently found himself on the bench, but with supporters urging for his return, it is likely he will play some part of the match; even if he comes on for the last twenty minutes, he is sure to make his presence felt.
It’s a handful to spell, let alone pronounce but he has masterminded Fulham’s path from relegation strugglers to play-off hopefuls.
Jokanovic took over in December of last season, and managed to steer Fulham clear of League One, even if by narrow margins, as his side finished 20th.
Having guided Watford to promotion the season before he took the helm at Fulham, the Serbian developed a thirst for promotion, stating in the summer that he wanted a top-six finish this time around.
A mix of aesthetically pleasing football, tenacity and punch have evolved the side into play-off contenders.
It is no secret that Warnock likes his teams to play on the break. In Fulham’s possession-orientated style, Cardiff’s ability to counter-attack quickly and effectively has another opportunity to impress.
Recently, Fulham were lucky to beat relegation battling Wigan Athletic and Nottingham Forest, winning both games 3-2. Wigan and Forest sat back, allowing Fulham onto them, and took advantage when they could through counter-attacks. These games represent hope for a City side who are now used to sitting back, only to punish opponents through the pace and invention of Kadeem Harris, Junior Hoilett and a revived Craig Noone.
Jokanovic’s side are also susceptible to a high press; the tendency to pass it around at the back allows forwards to close down less technically-able defenders and pinch the ball. If Cardiff are to sit back for large periods of the game, they must also employ a pressing game for other periods. City won’t win if they permit Fulham to dictate the game for the full 90 minutes.
Fulham have only won two of their last seven away matches in the league – those wins coming against a struggling Burton Albion and Ipswich Town. It suggests a frailty on the road that can be exposed by a City side who currently stand seven feet tall and are brimming with confidence.
The Bluebirds were outplayed and outclassed when Fulham visited the Cardiff City Stadium in the FA Cup Third round. Granted, City were focused on the league and Warnock fielded a team that largely consisted of fringe players. It was a match that firmly illustrated the priorities at the club, namely survival.
Thus, the return of Fulham a month and a bit later presents an opportunity for the City players to illustrate just how far they have come under Warnock.
Warnock’s men are playing with aggression and look an assured outfit. Three wins on the bounce, including two major scalps away from home, have transformed a side who looked destined for a mid-table finish into one who are beginning to taste the tantalising prospect of a miracle play-off place.
Lose today, however, and this embryonic dream would be pretty much over. Win, though, and Cardiff players and fans can begin to indulge in such fantasy.
It’s difficult to see Cardiff losing this one, and with safety all-but guaranteed, Warnock won’t just settle for a draw.
This will be a tough task for Warnock’s men, but let’s go for an energised Bluebirds to beat Fulham 2-1.