COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
The jury has been out on Cardiff City ever since they secured promotion to the Premier League at the end of the 2017/18 Championship season.
There were doubts about their overly direct style of play and how it would play out in the top flight.
There were concerns about Neil Warnock and whether his methods would help the Bluebirds stay up.
There was also unease about having 33-year old Sol Bamba as one half of the central-defensive duo for a potentially difficult season. It prompted critics to tip the Welsh side to go back down, just like in 2013/14 when they returned to the Championship after one season.
A counter-argument could have been portrayed in the fact that the Ivorian centre-back featured in all 46 games for Warnock’s side in the second tier last term, and his solid performances saw him named in the PFA Championship Team of the Year.
The defender’s consistency helped the side keep 19 clean sheets on their promotion journey. Their concession of 39 goals, the same as champions Wolverhampton Wanderers, crowned them as the meanest defence in the league.
However, that didn’t prevent the unease.
They could only score 69 times (which was 10 less than Fulham and 13 adrift of Wolves), and for a side whose primary tactic was simply getting the ball in the mixer, there were reservations about the effectiveness of long-ball football, while others posed the question as to how Warnock’s defenders would deal with better forwards.
For Bamba, the concerns focused on the fact he’d never played football at this level, while frankly it remained to be seen how quickly he’d adapt to the Prem at 33.
What no one saw was the Ivorian still holding his own after 15 games in the top tier.
While the opening game against Bournemouth, which resulted in a 2-0 defeat at the Vitality Stadium, served as a reality check, the centre-back proved his worth in the next two gameweeks as the Bluebirds played out successive goalless draws against Newcastle United and Huddersfield Town.
They were encounters his side lost 3-2 and 4-1 respectively, and he was culpable for two of the goals against the visiting Gunners: the first, when some suspect marking from a corner resulted in Shkodran Mustafi opening the scoring, while he was defensively naive in allowing Alexander Lacazette so much room before the Frenchman fired home the winning goal.
The Chelsea performance was another tricky encounter, where familiar failings came back to haunt the defender.
Having put his side into a shock lead following a well-worked set-piece routine, the defender’s outing deteriorated as he deflected Eden Hazard’s second strike on the day past Neil Etheridge to send the Blues 2-1 up. He then ludicrously went to ground in the box, when he should have stayed on his feet, to foul Willian for a penalty the Belgian netted to seal his hat-trick.
In all fairness, the ricocheted effort was out of Bamba’s control, but he’ll probably admit he erred on the other three.
Nevertheless, there has been a marked improvement in the Ivorian's performances, as he continues to prove how valuable he is to the Bluebirds’ survival bid. Given the Welsh side don’t score too many goals, one suspects they’ll have to hugely rely on their defensive structure, which has ironically been hit and miss, and form at Cardiff City Stadium, to survive.
The 33-year old has been vital to Warnock’s side’s recording three wins on the spin in their own backyard. He’s been a class apart in negative results too, notably the recent 1-0 defeat against Everton at Goodison Park, where he seemed to be the only one trying to keep the deficit down.
He made an excessive amount of clearances, blocks and interceptions to keep the score level, while even making a goal-mouth clearance when the Toffees thought they’d scored.
Perhaps Bamba hasn't been Cardiff's player of the season so far, but he's certainly their top defender.
While central defensive partner Sean Morrison might have been better in their promotion-winning campaign, Bamba has come on in leaps and bounds this year when many predicted he’ll be like fish out of water.
Of Warnock’s defenders, on a game-by-game basis he has made more interceptions, completed more tackles and leads in clearances. It may come off as being too simplistic, yet anyone on the outside looking in might feel keeping him healthy will be key to City retaining their top-tier status, owing to his impressive defensive numbers.
The major criticism of this Cardiff side is their inability to get results on the road and, to a lesser extent, their lack of flair.
Bamba and co. have picked up a sole point on their travels - a goalless draw against 10-man Huddersfield - and seem to be over reliant on their home form. They also lack a genuine goalscorer, with Callum Paterson (a converted right-back playing up top) their leading scorer with four strikes, while Bamba is next in line with two.
With a trip to face out-of-form Watford, who haven’t picked up a win in six, the Bluebirds will fancy getting their first points on the road this season at Vicarage Road.
However, they’ll need the ever-solid Bamba to put in another huge shift at the back.
Many felt the central defender would struggle in the English top flight, but the towering Ivorian has proven age is no barrier to excellence at this level, as he continues to churn out impressive performances.
There is definitely life in the old dog yet!