Of the four clubs looking to tie down the final two top-six spaces in the Welsh Premier League, only Carmarthen Town and Aberystwyth Town came through unscathed over the festive period with both teams taking four points from their two respective games.
There is now of course just one full round of fixtures remaining before the split (Aberystwyth do have an additional game in-hand) and there are multiple permutations to determine who’ll tie up those two remaining top-half places, although essentially current occupants Cardiff Met and Carmarthen Town are in control of their own destinies.
I was at the Met’s Cyncoed Campus for the second festive meeting between those two sides and came away most impressed with Carmarthen following their 3-1 win.
I think it would be unfortunate should Mark Aizlewood’s Carmarthen miss out on the top-six for a third consecutive season, as they certainly proved their worth on the basis of that winning performance against Cardiff Met.
Make no mistake, regardless of it being their debut season in the WPL, Cardiff Met are a very strong side and quite able to compete at this level, applying themselves to a high-standard this season. When they settle in possession – particularly on 3G – Cardiff Met are able to strangle sides with their solid shape and eye-catching brand of incisive, attacking football. Once they get a grip of a game, they rarely relinquish it and there are few better footballing sides in the league than Christian Edwards’ young team.
When Cardiff Met prised Carmarthen open after just nine minutes through Adam Roscow’s opener it seemed that the visiting Old Gold would struggle to regain any foothold in the game and be vulnerable to being opened up on the 3G surface, yet their response was one of defiance.
In true fashion of how Aizlewood effectively sets his teams up, Carmarthen worked tirelessly to prevent Cardiff Met settling; working tirelessly to smother their attempts to gain momentum pushing the opposition back closer and closer towards their own goal making it difficult for the Met to exit their own half.
Carmarthen’s work-rate in the first-half just lacked that final, decisive bit of quality in possession to hurt Cardiff Met but as I often believe in football, you earn good fortune and this proved right when Mark Jones was bundled over inside the area early in the second-half to give his side the perfect opportunity to level from the penalty spot.
With the wind in their sails, Carmarthen were able to turn the game completely on its head minutes later when Liam Thomas was the recipient of a clinical Kyle Bassett ball across the goal. Bassett is a player who at times this season has infuriated Mark Aizlewood, but when he’s playing well and hungry, his pace and quality in delivery down the right make him a vital outlet and crucial part of Carmarthen’s attack.
A late Mark Jones header sealed what eventually transpired to be a relatively one-sided victory for Aizlewood’s side leaving them needing a win in their final game at Cefn Druids to guarantee themselves a top-six finsih.
Whoever reaches the Championship Conference of the chasing clubs will likely struggle against a strong and dominant top-four but should Carmarthen Town make it, they won’t be short of work-rate or grit.
THE RACE FOR THE TOP-SIX
5th) Cardiff Met
Played: 21 Points: 28
Remaining fixture – Jan 14: Aberystwyth (A)
6th) Carmarthen Town
Played: 21 Points: 27
Remaining fixture – Jan 14: Cefn Druids (A)
Played: 21 Points: 25
Remaining fixture – Jan 14: Rhyl(H)
8th) Aberystwyth Town
Played: 20 Points: 23
Remaining fixtures – Jan 7: Cefn Druids (H); Jan 14: Cardiff Met (H)
JANUARY TRANSFER NEWS
The WPL January transfer window officially opens today giving clubs the opportunity to strengthen heading into Phase 2.
All managers will say that they would be interested in adding to their squad’s should the right player became available for a deal which suits their club’s budget, but I believe this particular mid-season window could be busier than most with teams actively looking to recruit.
Perhaps most interest will be on Bangor City, who seem intent on strengthening their squad prior to heading into what should be a very competitive three-way battle between themselves, Connah’s Quay and Bala Town for the two automatic European places (for finishing second and third. EDIT: If the WPL champions win the Welsh Cup). The club’s ambitious attempts to recapture hugely talented wide player Jordan Davies from Wrexham are likely to end in failure but that doesn’t mean Bangor City aren’t looking elsewhere – four signings from the Football League is what I’m told the club are targeting this month, though keeping lively Accrington midfielder Braydon Shaw past his current loan spell will also be high up on the Citizen’s priority list. Veteran talismanic midfielder Sion Edwards has featured less and less for Bangor in this campaign, his name has already been mentioned with a couple of WPL clubs – his experience and leadership would make him quite an asset.
Connah’s Quay have shown a lot of ambition over the last two windows and in his post-match interviews Andy Morrison has alluded to his desire to strengthen once again this coming window. There could be as many departures as arrivals over the next few weeks, with rumours of four coming in and four going out at Deeside Stadium. Could winger/striker Ashley Ruane, linked with a return back to Cefn Druids, be among those heading out the door?
When looking at clubs who need re-strengthening, I expect both Airbus and Newtown to be active over the coming weeks. Andy Thomas has made it quite clear that big changes in personnel are in order as Airbus look to fight their way out of the relegation zone. Chris Hughes at Newtown would also welcome fresh faces to ease his injury nightmare that has dogged his team of late, whilst adding some quality to a squad which has underperformed so far this season.
I wouldn’t expect much activity from TNS and would be surprised if there were any changes to the squad other than players being farmed out – teenage full-back Ryan Pryce has looked an excellent understudy when called upon this season and you wonder whether, with Chris Marriott and Simon Spender ahead of him, he will be allowed out on loan to gain more first-team playing minutes. Pryce would certainly be an excellent acquisition for whoever was able to pick him up, should he be available of course. TNS’s strategy seems to be based around recruiting very early in the season to tie in with their European campaign and with a settled and very competitive squad, at this stage it’s hard to see Craig Harrison risk unsettling the makeup of his team when they have no obvious shortcomings.
Rhyl meanwhile have already announced that they have added powerhouse striker Steve Lewis to their ranks – Lewis has a record making an impact in short bursts at this level and if he can fire them towards safety it’ll be a job well done. Rhyl will have to make do without young goalkeeper Owen Evans whose loan has expired. The 20-year-old stopper has returned to Wigan, where he was named on the bench to face Huddersfield yesterday, behind first-choice Jussi Jaaskelainen.
Despite being in a Rhyl side which shipped a lot of goals, Evans always looked a good goalkeeper whenever I saw him play in the flesh and hopefully his time in the WPL will have aided his development. Niall McGuinness has already confirmed he will be moving for a more experienced goalkeeper as the Lilywhites head into a crucial stage of the season.
You can send me any questions, views or comments on the WPL via Twitter to @1matthewburgess.
Featured image courtesy of Graham Haines/Cardiff Met FC/Welsh Premier League