The second South Wales derby of the season is nearly upon us, with Swansea City looking to become the first team in history to complete a league double in this fixture.
Swansea were superb during the first encounter at Cardiff City Stadium earlier in the season and will be looking for a similar performance to provide a welcome tonic to Tuesday night’s disappointing 3-0 Bournemouth defeat.
If history and bragging rights wasn’t enough, a Swansea win would also keep their push for promotion on course.
Nevertheless, there are several key concerns and questions for boss Steve Cooper to ponder ahead of this weekend…
The Jamal Lowe problem
The forward gave Cardiff City’s defence nightmares during the last derby meeting, netting twice to hand the Swans victory.
It was the start of a blistering run of form for the former Wigan star, who went on to net another five goals in his next six games.
However, Tuesday night’s defeat at the hands of Bournemouth was Lowe’s 14th game without a goal, and his inability to rediscover that earlier form has become a concern.
In fairness, Lowe isn’t the only attacking player that’s flattering to deceive. Conor Hourihane too has blown hot and cold at times, but Lowe does seem to embody Swansea’s struggle for a cutting edge.
Cooper has insisted that he’s still keen to keep belief in the forward, although one can’t help but wonder if that stance will be tested by the sparkling cameo of January signing Morgan Whittaker against Bournemouth.
The former Derby County prospect was very much brought in as ‘one for the future’ when he arrived at the Liberty Stadium, but was one of few positives during an otherwise limp attacking performance on the south coast.
Of course, those worried about Lowe’s form heading into this game should perhaps bear in mind that he wasn’t exactly pulling up trees before the first derby clash. The nature of this fixture means that form can go completely out the window on the day.
The Jack Army will be hoping this fixture once again brings out the best in him.
The call at the back
The big issue for Swansea this season might well be scoring goals, but defensively they’ve been rock solid.
It’s for that exact reason that Tuesday’s 3-0 defeat at the hands of Bournemouth will be of such concern.
The Swans were admittedly facing a very good Championship side in the Cherries, who will no doubt have promotion ambitions of their own come the end of the season.
But Cooper’s side were undone by some uncharacteristically dire defending.
Philip Billing produced a fine first-time volley for the Cherries’ opener, but given the acres of space afforded to him in the box, he could have just as easily taken a touch, looked up, perhaps even made himself a half-time sandwich, before eventually picking his spot.
The second was equally as sloppy, much to Cooper’s disappointment.
It’s important to stress that this was, defensively, a performance that was hugely out of character for a Swansea side that, aside from the league’s top two, still boasts the best defence in the division.
But with derby day just around the corner, and a showdown with arguably the best pound-for-pound striker in the Championship in Kieffer Moore, there will be concerns – and perhaps questions over where March Guehi is in his recovery from injury.
The Chelsea loanee has been central to much of Swansea’s defensive success this season, but has missed the last two-and-a-half games with a groin problem.
If he’s fit and firing, he surely has to play.
To a lesser extent Ben Cabango too has been a key figure at the back, and could well be in the mix for contention himself.
How to set up in midfield
There’s no doubting that on his day, Hourihane is a Roll’s Royce player at this level.
But, as mentioned, questions over the consistency of the Aston Villa loanee’s performances are continuing to grow.
They’re not entirely without merit either.
A threat from the set-piece yes. But the Irishman needs to be putting his hand up more often in open play.
Some have him down as something of a luxury player that Swansea cannot afford to accommodate at this time.
There’s perhaps some weight to that argument, but when he’s firing, heck he is he good. A cut above most in this division in fact.
His tally of five goals and one assist in a Swans shirt attests to that, but too often he’s found himself on the end of criticism for going missing during games.
There’s no room for passengers on derby day, and it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see Cooper revert to the five-man midfield that so successfully stifled the Bluebirds last time out.
One man who certainly did an excellent job of mopping up in the middle of the park on that day was Jay Fulton, who took his place alongside Korey Smith and Matt Grimes inside the two wing-backs, kept Moore in his pocket for much of the afternoon, and contributed brilliantly to a midfield that suffocated Cardiff’s creative spark brilliantly.
Fulton, of course, doesn’t bring the same level of quality in the final third as Hourihane, but does bring plenty of bite – a potentially key attribute when it comes to a bruising derby day encounter.
How to deal with the weight of history
Derby day is always a nervy occasion for everyone involved and, with Swansea’s win in the capital earlier in the season, one could say that Mick McCarthy’s side will be under a greater amount of pressure heading into this one.
There aren’t many things worse than your most bitter of rivals doing the double over you. That applies to any derby, but is particularly unthinkable in South Wales.
No side has won the two league matches in the history of this fixture – and Cardiff will have no intention of that changing on Saturday.
From Swansea’s point of view, this is a chance to write themselves into the history books, a prospect that brings with it a unique sense of pressure.
Cooper himself has been in the job long enough to know what this fixture means to the Jack Army, beating Cardiff means everything to them. But he will no doubt be keen for his side to focus on the task at hand. ‘Play the game, not the occasion’ as the saying goes.
Whether he’d feel the same way after a victory perhaps remains to be seen.