Laudrup hastens Swans' pursuit of perfection
The day before Swansea City played at home to Manchester United in November last year, their captain, Ashley Williams, wrote in his diary of the season: "The atmosphere around the town is like nothing I've ever experienced." An air of expectation hangs over South Wales again today ahead of the League leaders' visit, but there is a subtle shift in mood.
Last season's new boys, relegation favourites like most teams promoted via the play-offs, are beginning to feel they belong. Finishing 11th after beating Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool was fair reward for their performances and especially their football. So-called second-season syndrome awaited but, like Norwich City, they have made light of it – quite possibly in both cases because a new manager bringing in his own players and staff has minimised any tendency towards complacency.
Williams admits that he owes a great deal to Brendan Rodgers and he felt "gutted" when the manager left for Liverpool, but he is well placed to acknowledge the effect that Michael Laudrup, Swansea's imaginative choice as successor, has had in ensuring there was no resting on laurels.
"Maybe if Brendan had stayed he would have devised a plan to prevent that, but he left, the gaffer came in and we do play a little bit different," he said after a wet training session last week. "We're still passing the ball and trying to keep it, but he has suggested he wants us to play forward a little bit quicker and earlier, which seems to be working at the minute.
"Plus, it's a different team people are playing against, with five or six new players in their first season in the Prem."
Among them, of course, is Miguel Perez Cuesta, aka "Michu", who is level with United's Robin van Persie as the Premier League's leading scorer and surely the signing of the season at £2 million. "I call him 'The Student' or 'The Surfer Dude', because he's like a student the way he dresses," Williams says. "But everyone gets on really well with him and can see how good a player he is. He's added something to us." There is an element of the unknown under any new manager; all the more so when it is someone like Laudrup, who has neither played nor managed in Britain. "I didn't know too much about him in terms of management," Williams admits. "I did a bit of research on the internet but you never really know what he's going to be like as a bloke or how he wants to play so you're a bit apprehensive."
Winning 5-0 away in the opening game at Queens Park Rangers was not a bad way to begin, and talk of a "player rebellion" after three successive defeats quickly died a death. Now, having lost 4-3 at home to Norwich and 1-0 at Tottenham, they must avoid a similar run, although any gloom at dropping out of the top eight has already been mitigated by qualifying to meet Chelsea in the semi-finals of the Capital One Cup.
"It's two legs, we've got the toughest tie but two more games and it's Wembley," Williams said. "I've never been this far in my career and Swansea haven't either. So it's a great occasion.
"We've done well against the top teams in most games and we're not going into it with any fear. We can beat anyone on our day and it's the cup, so anything can happen. We did well at home to Chelsea [drawing 1-1 in the League] and on another day might have won it."
The Liberty Stadium crowd were at their best that afternoon, and will need to be again today as Williams and his fellow defenders try to combat the threat of Wayne Rooney and Van Persie: "We probably feel a little more used to it but it's still massive, still the kind of game we all dreamt about as kids."
So the dream goes on for the captain of Swansea and Wales, who was once rejected by his hometown club, Wolves. "Staying in the Premier League, a new contract, Swansea doing well, it's all been up.
"Now you're just hoping to keep that going, keep the momentum in your own personal career going for as long as possible. You know it doesn't last for ever and there'll be down days as we've all experienced before. But this year has been near-enough perfect."
Swansea City v Manchester Utd is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm
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