Two middling mid-tablers face off to go, well, slightly further up mid-table.
As the long evenings and mild weather have given way to grey drizzle, biting breezes and the odd gale-force storm, so have Aston Villa
’s green shoots of early season promise receded into distant memory. Since the opening day 3-1 victory over Arsenal – they remain the only side to have taken three points from the Gunners this term – and back-to-back wins over Norwich and Manchester City in late September, Paul Lambert’s men have struggled. Two draws, two defeats and no goals scored in 375 minutes does not happy reading make.
- West Ham 0-0 Villa (Prem)
- Villa 0-2 Everton (Prem)
- Villa 0-2 Spurs (Prem)
- Hull 0-0 Villa (Prem)
- Villa 3-2 Man City (Prem)
- Cardiff 1-0 Swansea (Prem)
- Norwich 0-0 Cardiff (Prem)
- Chelsea 4-1 Cardiff (Prem)
- Cardiff 1-2 Newcastle (Prem)
- Fulham 1-2 Cardiff (Prem)
Against West Ham last Saturday, a bright first 20 minutes gave way to a scrappy final 70 – the flowing move from which striking talisman Christian Benteke hit the bar excepted. Seeking to take advantage of the prodigious Belgian’s frame, long balls into the final third were the order of the day.
Successful to a point – Benteke won twice as many aerial duels (six) as any other player at Upton Park – Lambert’s counter-attacking system that yielded just two shots on target on Saturday must evolve into something more coherent.
Without injured pair Andreas Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor, however, a lack of penetration doesn’t seem like going away. In captain Ron Vlaar, Nathan Baker and Ciaran Clark, the defence remains solid enough, with Leandro Bacuna offering wing-back width and Karim El Ahmadi a more creative midfield presence. Goals, however, must come soon.
Buoyed by Sunday’s timely victory in the first top-flight South Wales derby, their first win since September, Cardiff
will approach the game with renewed vigour. Hometown boy Craig Bellamy charged around the pitch as if chased by, well, Craig Bellamy for one, Gary Medel suffered twice from cramp such was his work ethic and Peter Whittingham buzzed with invention.
Crucial now for the Bluebirds is to build on the sort of momentum that only a derby victory can bring. Chilean midfield screen Medel was especially impressive. Despite coming with a fiery reputation, the £11 million is still to pick up a yellow card since arriving in the Welsh capital from Sevilla in the summer. Supremely tidy in possession, he misplaced only three of 85 passes last weekend, Medel is the conduit through which much of Cardiff’s best play flows.
In containing Swansea’s possession-based system by dominating the territorial battle, Cardiff must now adapt their naturally counter-attacking game to the rigours of facing opponents who also like to break at pace.
With Agbonlahor a major doubt, Weimann and Antonio Luna both miss out with hamstring injuries for Villa, while Fabian Delph is hopeful of recovering from illness. Mackay, in contrast, can pick from a fully fit squad, with the exception of long-term absentee Andreas Cornelius.
Key battle: Christian Benteke vs Steven Caulker
Cardiff’s derby-day matchwinner Caulker – against his former club, no less – will have his hands full come Saturday when facing Benteke, a bruising centre-forward with a skeletal structure to die for and fire in his veins. The calming influence that has brought successive clean sheets to the Cardiff defence, ex-Spur Caulker has settled quickly, his pace a huge asset. With four of Villa’s nine league goals this campaign, Benteke must fire for the West Midlanders to return to winning ways.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Villa 1-0 Cardiff (LC, Sep 09)
- Villa 2-0 Cardiff (Div 2, Apr 75)
- Cardiff 3-1 Villa (Div 2, Dec 74)
- Cardiff 0-1 Villa (Div 2, Feb 74)
- Villa 5-0 Cardiff (Div 2, Oct 73)
Friends since winning the 1997/98 SPL with Celtic, this will be the third managerial meeting between Lambert and Mackay (is it just FFT, or does that sound like a 1980s’ Scottish police drama that never was? Anyway, we digress…) In charge of Watford in 2010/11, Mackay beat Lambert’s Norwich 3-2 at Carrow Road thanks to a Danny Graham brace, before a late-season 2-2 draw at Vicarage Road.
Facts and figures
- Aston Villa have gone six hours and 15 minutes without scoring a goal in the Premier League.
- Cardiff have only conceded eight goals in five away games, the same amount as Man Utd (8) and fewer than Man City (9).
- The only recent meeting between Aston Villa and Cardiff came in the League Cup in September 2009: Villa scored the only goal after three minutes through Gabriel Agbonlahor.
- There have been only 4 goals in Aston Villa’s last 4 Premier League games.
- Villa has made just 22 substitutions this season, fewer than any other side.
- Villa have hit a higher proportion of long passes than any other side this season (16%).
- Villa have had fewer touches in the opposition box than any other Premier League side this season (135).
- Cardiff have conceded fewer fouls than any other top-flight team this season (87).
- Villa have opened the scoring in a league-low 1 game this season.
- But the Villans have claimed 6 points from games where they’ve conceded first, a total only Manchester United can match.
- Aston Villa have been losing at half-time in 4 of their previous 5 home matches.
- Since the start of last season Villa have won only 6 of their 24 home games.
- Cardiff have drawn the first half in 3 out of 5 away matches and 3 of their 5 away games have finished with fewer than 3 goals.
A game of few goals and chances, most likely settled by a moment’s inspiration or indiscretion. Cardiff win, 1-0.