30 November 2013

Cardiff Preview: Ramsey and Rice bookend a match

Ahead of our trip to Cardiff City Stadium, the main storylines couldn't be further apart. On one hand, we have the feel-good homecoming for Aaron Ramsey. On the other, we have the saddening news of a cancer-diagnosis for club legend Pat Rice. Uniting the two players are a number of characteristics that impel the two men to success. While it may still be early days for anointing Aaron Ramsey, his form this year suggests that we might soon be lauding him in terms similar to those used for Rice—hard work, modesty, stamina, dedication, skill—and let's keep in mind that it's still early days to be writing eulogies for Pat Rice. There was early talk of a match-day t-shirt tribute to the man, since dismissed by the club, but I feel that a more-fitting tribute would be for our boys to play with the same determination and grit Rice so famously showed in his 528 appearances.

It would be too easy to make a one-for-one comparison in this regard ("Ramsey shares qualities with Rice, so it's up to Ramsey to perform on this day").  It's more accurate to say that everyone who plays today should be on their toes. This is the kind of match that, in recent seasons, we've let slip through inattention or lackluster displays. There should be no underestimating Cardiff, certainly not at home where they've beaten Man City and Swansea and drawn with Everton and Man U. This last result, grabbing an equalizer in Fergie—er, stoppage-time, excuse me—should boost the Bluebirds' confidence and belief that they can get results against the bigger clubs. Scratch "belief". Knowledge. They know they can get results because they have. Say what you will about Man City's road-woes or Man U's uneven form; Cardiff earned those points through determination, concentration, even possession.

They defend well and in numbers with a 4-5-1, which suggests that we'll struggle to find openings through the thicket that this presents. We might be able to dominate possession (something Man U failed to do, for what that's worth), but getting a shot on goal might be another story. The risk this poses, then is that we press too far forward and leave ourselves exposed on a break. Aside from the threat Cardiff offers from set-pieces (Kim Bo-Kyung's goal against Man U came on one, for example), we'll have to be alert to the counters that Cardiff seems to enjoy/depend on, whether these lead directly to shots on goal or to corners. Fortunately, we've actually become solid in such situations. Against Southampton, for example, we made 35 of 35 attempted clearances, including 10 of 10 from Koscielny, and 24 of these were headed (whoscored.com). Between Kos and Mertesacker, not to mention Giroud as well, we've shown something akin to aerial dominance this year, and this will be important against Cardiff today.

At the other end of the pitch, I do hope we'll see Walcott make his return, if only as a second-half sub. His ability to get behind a defense or stretch it out of shape could be vital to unlocking such a disciplined, positionally solid defense—the kind that seems set up specifically to thwart a possession-based, passing side such as ours. That said, I see Giroud netting today, perhaps on a set-piece header, but that will be all in a taut 1-0 victory. Defense and tenacity will be the order of the day, an approach and a result that will give Mr. Rice reason to smile.