The Big Match Tactical View: Cardiff City v Liverpool
Peter Whittingham is Cardiff's key player in midfield
"Suarez will be licking his lips at the prospect of getting in behind the Cardiff centre-backs, who lack speed"
A final between two Scottish managers, Malky Mackay and Kenny Dalglish, who have both used various formations throughout 2011/12 - Michael Cox assesses where the tactical battle will be won.
Cardiff City v Liverpool, Sunday 4:00pm, BBC1 and Sky Sports 1.
If complacency is an issue at Liverpool in the build-up to this tie, Kenny Dalglish will simply have to remind his players of the result from last season's Carling Cup final, where Birmingham shocked Arsenal to record a famous 2-1 victory.
Although that result owed much to a disastrous defensive mix-up between Wojiech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny, Alex McLeish's tactics also worked very well. He played a narrow midfield, flooded the centre of the pitch and didn't allow Arsenal time to settle on the ball. Cardiff against Liverpool is a very different match from Birmingham against Arsenal, but Malky Mackay might use a similar approach here.
Mackay has picked up a deserved reputation as a good tactician at Cardiff. Whereas the side played fairly basic football under Dave Jones, Mackay has made the side better on the ball and less predictable in terms of their tactics. A variety of formations have been used this season, featuring both one and two strikers - but it's likely to be the cautious approach here, with Kenny Miller alone upfront working the channels, in a 4-1-4-1.
The Bluebirds' key player is Peter Whittingham. Though known as a winger in his early days at Aston Villa, Whittingham is now deployed in an interesting deep-lying playmaking role, where he dictates the play and spreads the ball across the pitch to great effect. He has 12 league assists this season, three times as many as any other Cardiff player - partly because of his importance in open play, but also because he delivers an excellent dead ball.
However, by virtue of playing deep in midfield but not being a defensive-minded player, Whittingham has also picked up more yellow cards than any of his teammates.
Otherwise, Mackay's selection is unlikely to feature any major surprises, though Stephen McPhail and Mark Hudson face late fitness tests.
There are more question marks over Dalglish's shape and starting selection. In an attacking sense, while Andy Carroll has enjoyed a decent run of form, there is no doubt that Cardiff's defence is more vulnerable to pace than aerial power. Luis Suarez will be licking his lips at the prospect of getting in behind the Cardiff centre-backs who lack speed, while the tendency for the Welsh side's full-backs to move high up the pitch means that Craig Bellamy would be a good bet on the flanks, probably the left, against one of his many former clubs. Dirk Kuyt would add industry on the right of a 4-3-3.
Despite Liverpool's occasional problems without a holding player - away at Bolton was an obvious example - they might not need one here. Cardiff don't have an obvious number ten, and I think Steven Gerrard and Charlie Adam could be used to spray the ball forward in behind the Cardiff defence, with Jordan Henderson adding mobility higher up, and told to get close to Whittingham.
That would mean a place on the bench for Stewart Downing. This probably isn't the best game for him anyway - the hard-working, reliable Don Cowie protects his right-back well, whether it's Kevin McNaughton or Darcy Blake, and getting in behind the full-backs more directly is likely to be more promising for Liverpool.
I think the game might lack goalscoring chances early on - with a packed midfield and two strikers, Suarez and Miller, both drifting into the channels away from goal. I do worry about the speed of the Cardiff backline up against Suarez, though, and will back the Uruguayan to open the scoring at [6.2].
However, I think this could be a tighter game than expected, though the longer the match goes on, the more you expect the Premier League side's superior fitness to prove decisive. Therefore, I'll back Liverpool to win the game in extra time in the 'method of victory' market, at anything in double figures.
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