Ahead of Saturday’s game at the Cardiff City Stadium, Bluebirds fan Joe Harrison tells us what to expect from the home side…

What has changed since last season?

Almost everything. There’s a new man in the dug-out with Malky Mackay replacing Dave Jones after last year’s failure to earn promotion. Jones’ departure was followed by 12 players who were mainly either out of contract or had their loan deals expire. This means we lost the likes of Jay Bothroyd, Craig Bellamy, Seyi Olofinjana and Chris Burke as well as selling Michael Chopra to Ipswich. This left Mackay with a rebuilding job to do and he’s brought in a lot of players, mostly on frees, including the likes of Don Cowie from Watford, Kenny Miller from Bursaspor and, of course, Robert Earnshaw from Forest.

How has the season been so far?

Generally better than expected and at the moment it’s going very well. Most realistic fans began the season thinking finishing in the play-off positions would represent a successful season. But the impressive six game unbeaten run — four wins and two draws — takes us into Saturday’s game with thoughts of challenging the top two; having already beaten both Southampton and West Ham this season. It still looks beyond us this term but a third consecutive play-off appearance is looking a very real possibility and it’s hard not to be very impressed with the job Mackay has done so far.

What can we expect tactically?

A complete contrast to last season when the side was based on Jones’ plan to utilise the individual brilliance of our forwards. Mackay’s side is a lot more focused on solidity, hard work and playing as a cohesive unit. After starting the season with a midfield diamond, we’ve now settled into an effective 4-5-1 formation with Kenny Miller leading the line. The team is built around Peter Whittingham’s creativity while the other four midfielders provide lots of willing running and present a goal threat when arriving into the area. Our full-backs play much higher this season and with our centre-backs lacking pace, this is probably our biggest vulnerability at the moment.

Who are the key players to watch out for?

Without doubt, our single most important player at the moment is Whittingham. It’s perhaps something of a concern that elsewhere the side is very short of flair and guile, but it is testament to Whittingham’s ability that he is more than capable of providing enough by himself. I don’t think there’s a better player in the Championship, and on current form it’s hard to argue against this, with a goal in all four games we’ve played this month — most pretty spectacular. Keeping him quiet is the key to nullifying our threat.

Kenny Miller has also grown into his role. After initially struggling for form following his move from Turkey, he has found his feet and now has five league goals. His touch and all-round game often looks very poor, but once he gets into the area he suddenly looks much sharper and his finishing has impressed. He also has tremendous work-rate and excellent movement, traits which may sometimes go unnoticed but enable him to play the lone-striker role effectively.

Following his manager down the M4 from Watford, Cowie is perhaps the perfect example of what Mackay wants from his team. Tidy on the ball, disciplined tactically and with a frankly outstanding work-rate. Kevin McNaughton has described him as the fittest player he’s ever played with — and coming from McNaughton himself, that’s not a bad recommendation. He’s also displayed a useful knack of ghosting into dangerous positions, with six goals in all competitions so far and will be part of a midfield battle that will probably be crucial on Saturday.

How’s Earnshaw doing?

Earnie re-signing for Cardiff was probably the high point of the summer for most Cardiff fans, but so far his return has been less than triumphant and is proving something of a divisive issue with fans. Starting the season up front with Kenny Miller, as the Scot initially struggled for form, Earnie was our biggest threat, scoring three league goals. However, the two players appeared too similar for the partnership to work, and changing to one up front — a role Earnie is not suited to — has brought the best out of Miller. The emergence of Joe Mason has also limited Earnie’s appearances lately and he has been the subject of criticism from some fans: arguing he’s past it, not the player he was, etc. Others, myself included, think this is very short-sighted. He’s a great player to have around the dressing room and, as Forest know very well, as the season goes on, he’s a fantastic option to have in a Championship squad as given chances he will score goals. I must confess personal bias here, as he’s probably my favourite ever player — for Cardiff and in general — but I am confident that he’ll come good later in the season.

What’s going to happen on Saturday?

Given that we’ve failed to beat Forest in the last four meetings between the sides, it’s hard to be overly confident and Cardiff fans are certainly viewing this as a difficult game. We’re playing well at the moment and the team should be confident; going after a win would only increase the feeling that this team are one to be reckoned with. However, Forest seemed to have improved since the arrival of Steve Cotterill and I expect them to provide a stern test, as his teams tend to be set up to be hard to beat, particularly away from home. With home support and the confidence provided by recent results, I expect Cardiff to come out and really go at Forest but if the away side can withstand this, I think it’ll probably end in a 1-1 draw.

Joe writes for the View From The Ninian blog.

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