And just like that, Fulham came away with three points against a Barnsley side that bluntly, were not in their class. Yes, a 2-1 scoreline suggests that the game was close, but with a 19-7 shot output, there was only one side that was dictating the run of play. With a performance like that, Fulham seemed to have returned to the improved performances that they were having since their miserable performance against Wolves.
The Cottagers have collected 13 points out of a possible 21 during that calendar period, but plenty of contexts have to be taken into account. One of Fulham’s two losses during that span came against a miserable Sunderland side, while their remaining wins and draws came against Derby County, Sheffield United, Millwall, Birmingham, and the aforementioned Barnsley. While victories over the Rams and Blades were impressive considering where they were in the league table, the latter three should be about as textbook as you can get. The fact that Fulham has not blown any of these teams out is not a positive sign if you are looking for another miracle finish towards the top-six in the Championship.
Now they begin the second half of the season against not only among the best teams in the Championship, but also the most perplexing in Cardiff City. In the home fixture this season, we saw Aboubakar Kamara score his first goal for the club only to see Danny Ward equalize minutes later. It was a chippy game all the way through as any Neil Warnock side would be involved in. However, there is no denying who his football club is.
They are a scrappy counter-attacking side with three attacking midfielders that can bomb up and down the pitch and beat you with their pace. Since we have last seen Cardiff, they have eventually established themselves as the number one team in the league in interceptions, second in the league in clearances, third best in aerial duels and joint-third best in tackles. And Warnock wouldn’t have it any other way. And while their attack seems to be secondary, their 13.7 shots per 90 minutes is still within the league’s top ten and you will struggle to find a side with better efficiency than the Bluebirds’ 0.121 expected goals per shot. And while they do seem a tad lucky with their point total in the table, most of that has to do with the defense carrying them through more so than the attack.
Like any other team in football, Cardiff has had their fair share of injuries. Center back Sean Morrison, center forward Kenneth Zohore and defensive midfielder Aron Gunnarson have been on the shelf for some time or just returned to full fitness and it has led to Warnock experimenting with a 4-1-4-1 formation instead of the 4-2-3-1 he started the season with. Whatever the differences have been, Cardiff hasn’t slowed down anytime soon as they were unbeaten in six games until their loss to Bolton over the weekend. So on that note, who else has stepped up for the welsh outfit and who else has progressed since we last met them?
Another 17 games have taken place since Fulham last played Cardiff and Sol Bamba is now the second highest rated player in the Championship behind Wolves’ Willy Boly. Clearly, those two are not the best players in the entire league, but Bamba’s importance on the team cannot be ignored either. He is the clubhouse leader in 121 combined tackles and interceptions and has even added three goals to his account for this season. While his tackling is so much better than what it was when we last saw him, Bamba is still well past his best as an all-around defender. If Cardiff were to be promoted automatically back to the Premier League, it will be fascinating to see how a soon-to-be 33-year old center back can last with the best attacking players in the world almost every week.
Bruno Ecuele Manga
While Bamba is still thriving in his role as an aging veteran and while Morrison has been on the shelf, it has been another veteran that has stepped up greatly in his most comfortable position. In the start of this campaign, Warnock has trotted Manga out as a right back without him providing that much in the way of attacking impetuous as modern fullbacks do. However, Manga is not that far off of Bamba with 101 tackles and interceptions of his own and has taken advantage of his opportunities returning to center back. Like his teammate, Manga’s numbers are well short of his previous campaigns, especially the ones in which he looked like a world beater with Ligue 1 outfit Lorient before joining the Bluebirds. But whatever the role he’s given, the 29-year old Gabon International is happy to do the job for his club.
Lastly, we turn our attention to probably the best Cardiff player from the Craven Cottage fixture this season. Since then, the 24-year old Ralls has continued his development as a footballer by being second on the club in scoring with five goals and an assist. While Hoilett is the definitive engine in Cardiff’s attack, Ralls has become a solid fulcrum for the club with his passing. If he were to join a more expansive style football club, it will be even more interesting to see where his stock goes. Either way, Ralls is in a positive situation and could see himself an established Premier League player if things break right for him when this season is all said and done.