Cardiff City’s Championship season kicks off on Saturday at home to Sheffield Wednesday.
It has been a turbulent week for the Bluebirds, who crashed out of the Carabao Cup following defeat by Northampton Town last weekend before the club’s fans were rocked by a big club announcement on Wednesday.
Cardiff revealed they had terminated the contract of Nathaniel Mendez-Laing in a bombshell statement just days out from the beginning of the 2020/21 league campaign.
The winger was axed for a “serious breach of contract”, Neil Harris said in his Thursday press conference, however what that means specifically is still unknown.
What we do know, though, is that Mendez-Laing will not be part of the Bluebirds’ squad this season, which is a blow given his proven ability at this level.
It means other players will now have to step up and affords them the opportunity to really grab that spot on the right-hand side of midfield.
We have seen the Bluebirds make three additions in this transfer window, Kieffer Moore on a permanent deal from Wigan Athletic and Jordi Osei-Tutu and Sheyi Ojo on season-long loans from Arsenal and Liverpool respectively.
Neil Etheridge, meanwhile, has sealed his transfer to Birmingham City, a move which could net the Bluebirds more than £2m.
Danny Ward, too, was released by the Bluebirds, going on to sign for his former side Huddersfield at the beginning of the summer.
So, after three departures and three new recruits, what is Cardiff City’s best XI?
Well, let’s start in goal and the shoo-in that is Alex Smithies, a standout performer last year whose consistency between the sticks was recognised by Gist Vile readers when they voted him Player of the Season.
At right back, there is only one option. Osei-Tutu is the only natural, senior right back within the Bluebirds ranks at present and will have a heavy workload this term unless another is recruited.
At the heart of defence, the excellent centre-back pairing of Sean Morrison and Curtis Nelson is the only right answer. The pair struck up quite the partnership last season and City fans will be keen to see that continue.
Then at left back, Joe Bennett. The defender had a very good back end to the season last year and will be pushed for his spot by the re-emergence of Greg Cunningham, but starts the campaign in pole position.
At the base of midfield, City have the luxury of choosing from Marlon Pack, Leandro Bacuna, Will Vaulks and Joe Ralls, four very good operators at this level.
If all are fit, Neil Harris tends to like the blend of Bacuna and Ralls, who give enough go-forward to add to the attack, while their tenacity and engine in the middle are real assets.
It is a tough call to leave the other two out, especially Vaulks, who looked really strong in the second half of the campaign last season, so expect him to be pushing for one of those spots every step of the way.
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The three behind the striker now looks a little trickier given Mendez-Laing’s exit. The winger was a nailed-on start on the right-hand side, however he will no longer be an option for Harris.
Lee Tomlin, when fit, will definitely start at No.10. The playmaker was so pivotal to City’s success last season and Harris will hope he will be again this time around.
He was voted the fans’ Player of the Season in the official club vote and also earned a two-year contract extension. A key player who will no doubt have a huge part to play in the Bluebirds’ fortunes this year.
On the wings, it depends how attacking you want to be, but the manager knows that much of his threat comes from pacy counter-attacks down the flanks and that is what will inform this decision.
The best, most attacking pairing will be Josh Murphy on the left and Sheyi Ojo on the right. Both of whom have a point to prove, for different reasons, and must step up and be counted this season.
Junior Hoilett will be vying for those spots, too, and do not discount the likes of Gavin Whyte and young Tom Sang, who will also be looking to show Harris just what they can do.
Up top, Harris has the luxury of choosing between Kieffer Moore and Robert Glatzel, two big goal threats. But there is no doubt the manager will start with the summer signing up front, a man in form following his exploits with the Latics last season and Wales last weekend, not to mention his two-goal haul against Newport County during pre-season.
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Cardiff City’s best XI (4-2-3-1) : Smithies; Osei-Tutu, Morrison, Nelson, Bennett; Bacuna, Ralls; Ojo, Tomlin, Murphy; Moore.