Wales come through their “cold, wet Wednesday night in Stoke” test.

CoymayIt was Andy Gray, Sky’s voice of the Premier League at the time, who ludicrously suggested when Barcelona were at the peak of their powers that Lionel Messi and co would “struggle on a cold night at the Britannia Stadium”.

That pompous comment offered a glimpse into the arrogant and antiquated outlook which brought about the subsequent fall from grace of he and his “partner in crime”, Richard Keys. However, what Gray was doing with his Stoke analogy was merely rehashing a cliche which had been used in the game before that for years, or probably decades, before he “upgraded” it in his effort to do down the greatest club side I’ve seen (presumably because they weren’t in the Premier League).

Previous entities of the line had seen Wednesday night changed to a Tuesday and the venue changed to some unfashionable footballing outpost like Grimsby or Carlisle, but the thought process behind it was always the same – let’s see how good this bunch of fancy Dans are when they are at taken out of their comfort zone (they don’t like it up them you know!).

Now, although I’ve tended to be critical here of the type of thinking behind these generalisations, I have to admit that you cannot truly measure the worth of a team unless they have been through a test provided by an inferior or hardly glamorous opponent whose aim is to make up for the talent they lack with a very high work rate and an in your face attitude. Throw in a pitch which negates much of any technical superiority the visitors may have and some dodgy officiating as well and you have a set of circumstances which have seen many a fancied team come a cropper.

Well, the temperature may have been tens of degrees higher than in the middle of the week in the Potteries and the high humidity may have meant that any moisture dripping from the bodies of the players came from their own sweat rather than out of the sky, but Wales passed their “night in Stoke” test last night as their 1-0 win in Cyprus took them to within touching distance of participation at the Finals of Euro 2016.

Right from the moment the draw was made for this qualification group, Cyprus away struck me as a possible banana skin for Wales and, with three important members (Joe Ledley, Joe Allen and James Chester) of the team which beat Belgium in June ruled out with hamstring injuries, I was not as confident of a good result as I had been for the, apparently, sterner test in Israel last March.

David Edwards, a more than adequate replacement for the injured Joe Ledley heads what should have been a first goal for Wales last night, only for it to be bizarrely ruled out by a referee whose leniency at least meant that we have no suspensions going into the Israel match.*

David Edwards, a more than adequate replacement for the injured Joe Ledley, heads what should have been a first goal for Wales last night, only for it to be bizarrely ruled out by a referee whose overall leniency at least meant that we have no suspensions going into the Israel match.*

In Haifa, Wales looked poised and confident from the first whistle, but in Nicosia they were nowhere near as smooth in the early stages and the home side would have been very encouraged with an opening few minutes which saw some decidedly uneasy defending from the visitors.

What Wales could take some heart from was that there were opportunities for them going forward in those early minutes. Aaron Ramsey narrowly missed from the edge of the penalty area being set up by Gareth Bale and when the latter tried his luck with a free kick from thirty five yards, Cypriot goalkeeper Georgallides’ unorthodox save with his knees presented Neil Taylor with a great chance from the rebound. Unfortunately, but hardly surprisingly, the left back, who has never scored a goal for Swansea or his country, was unable to accept the opportunity as Georgallides redeemed himself by blocking Taylor’s effort.

The initial suggestions were that there would be a few goals in the game, but this proved to be misleading and, instead, it turned into a tight affair with not much more in the way of meaningful goalmouth action in the opening forty five minutes.

The reason for this at one end of the pitch was that Wales’ defenders began to show the qualities which had led to them conceding just two goals (one of them a penalty) in their first six games. Chester’s replacement Ben Davies and captain Ashley Williams had not been their usual composed selves early on, but the former gradually settled into a perfectly acceptable performance, while the latter was, arguably, the best player on the pitch over the ninety minutes.

Watching Williams play for his club in their win over Manchester United last weekend and again last night, you have to ask if there is a better British born centreback in the game at present – I honestly don’t believe there is and to think he was playing for Stockport County when he won his first international cap!

Chris Gunter, the Mr Dependable of this qualifying campaign, was steadiness personified and while Taylor may not get you many (make that any!) goals, he is now a proven performer at this level, while, on the right, Jazz Richards, now has an assist to go with the two fine displays he has produced for his country over the past three months.

So, the back five were their usual selves for ninety per cent of the game, but I’m sure they were grateful for the protection they were given by two midfield players not really known for performing the holding roles the two Joes fill when fit.

Andy King may be more of an all round midfield man now than he was at the start of his career, when his ability to support the strikers made him such a goal threat for club and country, but I had my doubts about his ability to adequately perform the duties he was given last night.

Much the same applies to Dave Edwards who is another who you don’t associate with doing his most effective work in front of his defence, but I thought the pair of them did well, with Edwards giving one of his better performances in a Wales shirt.

Up the other end, Wales certainly carried more of a threat, but promising situations came to nothing because of a mixture of the bobbly pitch and some poor first touches. Even when they did get things right as Edwards headed in Bale’s lovely cross from the right, the poor referee, Szymon Marciniak from Poland, saw an offence which I still haven’t after repeated viewings of the incident and penalised Hal Robson-Kanu for a foul.

Although Wales had not played that well in the first half, Wayne Hennessey had been a spectator throughout it, but he had to shovel away a long range shot within a minute or so of the restart as Wales endured their worst spell of the match up to the hour mark.

Having come through that dodgy period, Wales looked to be well capable of keeping a clean sheet, but there was nothing happening on the attacking front to suggest the deadlock could be broken until, like a hunter who is able to sense a weakness as it stalks its prey, they suddenly upped their game around the eighty minute mark.

In such humid conditions, tiredness was bound to be a factor, but, surprisingly, it seemed to be affecting the home side more as Ramsey forced Georgallides to beat his shot away to signal the start of a brief period where Cyprus were being forced to hang on.

Unfortunately for a team which still entertains hopes of sneaking into the Play Offs in November, they were unable to do so, because Richards was able to fashion a good cross, after he had been worked into space by a clever Ramsey pass, which was headed emphatically home by the inevitable Gareth Bale.

A great picture of Gareth Bale heading towards the bench after scoring the decisive goal - if anything epitomises the spirit which has helped make this qualifying campaign such a success so far, it was the sight of thirty or so players, management and coaching staff all celebrating together seconds after this photo was taken.*

A great picture of Gareth Bale heading towards the bench after scoring the decisive goal – if anything epitomises the spirit which has helped make this qualifying campaign such a success so far, it was the sight of thirty or so players, management and coaching staff all celebrating together seconds after this photo was taken.*

Although Hennessey was forced into his second moment of concern on the night when he turned aside a shot which may have been going wide anyway and a rebound after Williams’ headed clearance hit a Cypriot attacker and flew too close to the Welsh goal for comfort, the team were not to be denied now. Roared on by the biggest travelling support in years (estimated to be between three and a half and four thousand), they held on for a win which leaves them knowing victory over Israel at Cardiff City Stadium on Sunday will see them qualify for the Finals next summer.

Wales are not sure of going to France yet, but, given that we have just about the biggest banker win possible in this competition to finish off our campaign when Andorra come to Cardiff next month, I’m not going to urge too much caution – it would take an upset of a sort I cannot remember happening on the international stage before to stop us getting to the twenty point mark now.

However, let’s do some worst case scenarioing and assume we don’t get those twenty points, what is likely to happen then.

Let’s start with Andorra who have to travel to Bosnia as well as Cardiff in between entertaining Belgium – they cannot qualify or reach the Play Offs, but let’s say they don’t lose to us while picking up nothing from the other two matches.

If we were to finish on seventeen points, the only way Bosnia could finish ahead of us now is to win all of their remaining matches (they have to go to Cyprus after entertaining Andorra and us). I don’t think it’s beyond the bounds of possibility for them to do that and, in that case, their better record in the games with Wales would see them ahead of us even though we had the same number of points – but we would have to lose to Andorra for that to happen, any other result and they cannot catch us.

Cyprus can get to eighteen points by beating Belgium at home on Sunday and then winning in Israel and seeing off Bosnia when they visit next month. Again, we would have to lose to Andorra for them to finish above us even if they managed a hat trick of unlikely wins, because we have the edge with our wins over them if the two of us finish on the same number of points.

Even if we beat Andorra, Israel can finish above us. They would have to win on Sunday, in Belgium in their final fixture and beat Cyprus at home next month though to get to 21 points. If it finishes as a draw on Sunday and then we draw with Andorra, while losing in Bosnia, even wins for Israel in their other two matches won’t be enough for them because our better record against them would be like an extra point for us in the event of both countries finishing on 19 points.

Belgium can get to twenty three points by winning in Cyprus this weekend, then following that up next month with victories in Andorra and then when they entertain Israel. Again, our better record in head to head matches means that we finish above them at the top of the group if we win our two home matches. However, in the event of Israel being able to get ahead of us with twenty one points, that would have to mean that they had won in Belgium and this then ensures that we would need nothing more than a win over Andorra to finish above the favourites, because, yet again, in effect our record in the head to head matches is worth that extra point.

So, even if we don’t get another point, we may well have already done enough to secure a Play Off spot, one point makes third place virtually guaranteed and second place likely, while two points would only see us not qualifying if Israel were to beat us by at least a three goal margin. Of course, all of this assumes that we can’t beat a country which has not taken a point in it’s previous four World Cup and European Championship campaigns, has not taken one in this qualifying group yet (this means they have lost at least forty nine consecutive qualifying matches in these competitions) and has yet to avoid defeat in the forty seven matches they’ve played in the European Championships since first taking part in it nearly twenty years ago!

All of those years of qualifying heartbreak still mean that I cannot quite bring myself to say we are going to finally make it, but we have to do it now, don’t we?

*pictures courtesy of  http://www.walesonline.co.uk/

 

Posted in Wales | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

New signing Idriss Saadi watches Under 21s continue their fine run.

CoymayThis is the fourth season in which City have competed in an Under 21 Development League and one of the things regular watchers of matches at this level will have realised in that time is that types of sides we face can vary tremendously.

For example, a fortnight ago in the first home match of the season, Sheffield Wednesday fielded a team you just knew was full of very young players as soon as you saw them. City had a big advantage over them in terms of physique and power and, to be honest, although the final scoreline of 3-0 sounded comfortable, they took an awful long time to make the obvious superiority they had count.

On the other hand, when last night’s opponents, Brentford, played here last season, their team had a nucleus of senior players with plenty of experience, while the younger players in their side were big and powerful enough to cope – the challenges presented by these two teams were completely different.

Last night’s Brentford were more towards the Sheffield Wednesday end of the spectrum in that they did not have a great deal of first team experience (three of their line up had featured once or twice in the first team), but they were better equipped to cope physically than the Yorkshire team were.

In the event, Brentford went the same way as Wednesday –  beaten 3-0 quite easily, and when you consider that these two victories sandwiched a 5-0 win at Portman Road against Ipswich, you begin to see why City currently top the table at this very end early stage of the season, despite being beaten in their first game at Coventry.

Like the other two sides faced in this trio of big wins, Ipswich were definitely more in the youthful range than the one which takes maximum advantage of a competition rule, which I believe is still in force, that allows sides to field three over 21 outfield players, as well as an over age goalkeeper.

Now, I’ve seen us take this rule to it’s limits down the years, but what is very encouraging, as well as quite exciting, is that we have enjoyed this run of victories which has seen us score eleven times while not conceding once with matchday squads which, as far as I can make out, consisted entirely of players who were twenty one or younger.

True, five of last night’s starting eleven had appeared in at least one competitive match for the first team and Semi Ajayi came close to making the Arsenal side during his time with them, but I’d say only Matt Kennedy might be considered a realistic first team possibility at the moment and even he appears to have dropped off Russell Slade’s radar this season.

It’s hard to see a way back in to Slade’s squad at the moment for Kennedy, but, judging by the messageboards, I wasn’t the only person present last night who, while watching him was thinking we must have a tremendous squad if this player cannot get into it. If Kennedy could, perhaps, have been accused of being a bit self indulgent during what was still a good display against Sheffield Wednesday, last night he was the team man personified. Yes, there were times as the second half wore on where he tried, and failed, to beat one man more than he needed to, but he was a young man enjoying the feeling of playing well and knowing it and I’m not going to criticise him for that.

Most of the time though Kennedy took the right options and his attitude was first class. He looked up for the game from the start and had already enjoyed some success with his work on the right, when he cut infield, shimmied past a couple of challenges and shot across visiting keeper Bonham and into the net, via a post, in the tenth minute.

Brentford, who had taken seven points from their first three matches, were struggling to hang on at this stage and it came as no surprise at all when City doubled their lead five minutes later, but the method by which they did so, probably did, given the slick passing which they’d shown so far.

I’d mentioned in my piece on the Sheffield Wednesday match about how Ajayi gets tremendous distance on some of his defensive headers and last night he proved it again as he nodded a clearance by Bonham fully fifty yards for Rhys Healey to latch on to. Healey had looked a player down on confidence for much of the previous home game, but three goals in his previous two matches had him looking much more like his normal self last night and there was never much doubt that he would score as he took the ball forward and slotted past the keeper with ease.

Understandably perhaps, City’s play lost some of it’s intensity after this and the rest of the match saw them mix things between short periods where they would raise their game and hunt for the third goal and others where they seemed happy to keep their shape and let Brentford tried to find a way through them.

Despite plenty of possession, the visitors didn’t have too much success in putting together the moves which would threaten to reduce the deficit – there was a shot deflected wide which Luke O’Reilly may have struggled to deal with if it had been on target and Curtis Watkins had to time his challenge well as a Brentford striker threatened to get clear of him, but City were largely comfortable in maintaining their lead through to half time.

The start of the second period saw one of those spells where City were on the hunt for the decisive third goal which I mentioned earlier as Healey’s header from a Kennedy cross beat the keeper but flew inches wide, Kennedy wasn’t too far away with a shot from distance and Tyler Roche’s air shot meant that a reasonable chance on the far post was missed.

For the most part though, City, while not just sitting back and defending, did not chase further goals with any great urgency. Perhaps they knew that Brentford’s need to push men forward would present them with opportunities to use their attacking pace and skill and this is how things panned out as a lovely bit of footwork by Healey took him to the byeline from where he rolled back a cross that Theo Wharton really should have put away from about ten yards out. Then, after a great forty yard run in which he beat a couple of defenders,  the striker blazed well over with just the keeper to beat – maybe Healey’s unusual lack of composure had something to do with him being knackered after what was a lung bursting run!

Brentford occasionally got in a shot which might go wide or high and they sometimes forced O’Reilly into pretty straightforward saves, while their number eleven Courtney Senior at times confirmed my first half impression that he was someone with genuine pace who took some stopping once he started running with the ball, but, generally, City stayed well in control.

However, it was beginning to look like they would have to settle for a 2-0 win when they were given a penalty somewhat out of the blue with ten minutes left. Again, Kennedy played a leading role, as his beautiful cross looked to have set Healey up for an effort on goal, but he was brought down by Brentford defender Gradi Milenge for an obvious penalty. Just as at Ipswich last week, Healey put away his spot kick with the minimum of fuss and he may have ended up with a hat trick as both he and Kennedy were denied by Bonham in added time.

So, 3-0 it stayed and you only have to see how often I’ve mentioned Matt Kennedy so far to realise that he was the main contender for City man of the match. I assume Russell Slade was there watching the game and performances like this one must, surely, have our manager thinking about restoring him to the first team matchday squad. If the present situation continues though, then I can see Kennedy’s interest and performance levels dropping because he’s going to start thinking that it makes no difference how well he is playing for the Under 21s – he’s looked much too good for this level in the two matches I’ve seen him play this season and he’d be better off being loaned out somewhere if he’s going to remain out of the first team picture.

I say Kennedy was the main contender for City man of the match, but he certainly wasn’t the only one. I thought eighteen year old Robbie Patten had a superb game as he played a variety of passes, while barely ever giving the ball away and put out fires all over the pitch – if what was beginning to look like a good Brentford chance was snuffed out, it was invariably Patten who was responsible.

I’ve been banging on about our manager’s inability to give young players an opportunity in the first team for some time now. However, the fact that Patten was one of just two untried local youngsters (last night’s captain Macauley Southam was the other) to see any first team action in our pre season programme suggests that Russell Slade likes him and so he may be someone who doesn’t fall into the black hole which seems to claim so many of our young players once they get to the stage where they obtain a pro deal.

Finally on possible man of the match contenders, a mention for Curtis Watkins who, overall, I rated the better of our two centrebacks on the night.

New City signing Idriss Saadi pictured before last night's game.

New City signing Idriss Saadi pictured before last night’s game.

Watching the game last night was new striker Idriss Saadi who arrived from French Ligue 2 club Clermont Foot on a three year deal for an undisclosed amount (the Echo describes it as “a small fee”).

Regular contributor on here, Anthony O’Brien has already mentioned this video   showing Saadi in action in the Feedback section. Now, speaking as someone who always warned against reading too much into You Tube videos and then did exactly that with the one I saw of Andreas Cornelius, I must repeat the Government Health Warning for You Tube videos here and say that crap players can often be made to look like world beaters in them.

However, I must say that’s a superb overhead kick, the chip from the edge of the penalty area while moving backwards is an example of a very difficult technique performed perfectly and I love the way he sends the goalkeeper the wrong way at 1.45. All of that suggests a high level of natural talent, as does the fact that he was selected by France at all age group levels up to and including Under 19.

On the down side, he’s only just recovered from a cruciate ligament injury and, as far as I can tell, had not played yet for his former club this season, so the possibility has to be acknowledged that, even if Saadi really was as good as he looks in that video, he may not be any more.

A couple of messageboard contributions regarding Saadi’s signing took my eye, the first made the very reasonable point that a You Tube video of his missed chances during his time at Clermont might tell us more about him than one with his goals in, while the second labelled it an “underwhelming” signing.

Well, as someone who has seen more than enough “overwhelming” Cardiff City signings in the last two years or so, maybe being underwhelmed by our transfer dealings isn’t too bad a thing.

True, our manager’s transfer dealings so far haven’t been overly successful, but I get the feeling that players such as Peltier and Revell are contributing to a better dressing room (the former’s not doing too badly on the pitch every week as well), Malone is developing nicely and Kennedy definitely has something.

Indeed, if the rumours that we are prepared to loan out, or even sell, Eoin Doyle, the only player Slade has paid what might be called a serious fee for, today are true, then maybe our manager can be added to what is a very long list of bosses who do their best work in the transfer market when buying economy rather than first class?

In a couple of other moves yesterday, Javi Guerra (an “overwhelming” signing who never seemed to fit in here from day one) got the return to Spanish football he wanted when he completed a permanent move to Rayo Vallecano and Etien Velikonja (who, incredibly, is in his fourth season as a Cardiff player!) was loaned to Belgian club Lierse S.K. until the end of the campaign.

Finally, to go back to the Under 21s, Russell Slade is fond of saying we are in “a good place” when talking about the senior team lately, but all of the signs are that this applies equally to the side at the level below them – that was as good an Under 21 performance as I’ve seen for a year or so last night.

 

 

 

Posted in Out on the pitch, The stiffs | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments