Swansea City aiming to say solid at Sunderland
PRESSED again on the future of Danny Graham yesterday, Michael Laudrup told a story about younger brother Brian.
"He was at Chelsea and they were playing Copenhagen in a European game," Laudrup remembers.
"There were rumours, more than rumours, that he was going to join Copenhagen and they had almost agreed that he would only play one or two more games.
"But he played in that game. It finished 1-0 to Chelsea and he scored the goal.
"A week later he signed for Copenhagen, so it's possible."
Laudrup had a smile on his face as he told the tale, for there are some parallels with Graham's situation.
Tonight Swansea City go to Sunderland, the club who have been tipped to sign Graham throughout this transfer window.
Yet he remains a Swansea player and is likely to be part of the visitors' squad this evening.
It is a strange scenario, and Laudrup has admitted he will talk to Graham about his mindset before deciding what part he will play at the Stadium of Light.
The story about his brother may have been read as a heavy hint that Graham will soon be a Sunderland player.
Yet Laudrup laughed off that idea, stressing instead — and for the first time this month — that he wants Graham to stay.
Opposite number Martin O'Neill, meantime, says he still hopes to land a forward before Thursday night's deadline but will not discuss specific transfer targets.
And up at Stoke City, home of long-time Swansea target Kenwyne Jones, Tony Pulis is keen to do some last-minute business but nothing is certain yet.
We wait to see how it all unfolds, though Laudrup's stance yesterday was that there will be no dramatic last-minute deals being signed and sealed at the Liberty Stadium.
The Dane declared himself happy with what he has, which is entirely understandable given that Swansea have a first ever major final to look forward to next month and currently sit ninth in the Premier League with a very healthy 33 points.
If it ain't broke, Swansea's hierarchy may just be saying to themselves, then don't try to fix it.
There is nothing wrong with Swansea's form, after all. They are unbeaten in six league games and have just come through a two-legged Capital One Cup semi-final against the European champions.
And particularly pleasing for Laudrup has been the progress Swansea have made away from home this season.
They looked a little weak at times in the early stages of the campaign, when they were turned over at Aston Villa and Stoke.
But since then Swansea's only away reverses have come at Manchester City, Tottenham and Arsenal in the FA Cup.
The key to their added resilience on the road? It starts at the back. "The players who score goals are always in the headlines," says Laudrup.
"Manchester United have some very good players, but Robin van Persie gets most of the headlines because he scores the goals.
"But we have had some very, very good defensive performances this season.
"That's somewhere where we have improved a lot in the last couple of months, especially away from home.
"I am not sure exactly of the numbers, but I think we are one of the teams who has conceded the fewest goals away from home in the league."
In fact, with only nine goals against in 11 games, Swansea have the best defensive record on the road in the top flight.
"We want the ball and all of that, but sometimes away from home you have to know how to defend," Laudrup adds.
"You have to accept you will be pushed backwards, that there will be moments when you have to cope with pressure.
"I think we have improved a lot in that area and that's why we haven't conceded many goals."
Much of the credit for Swansea's defensive improvement goes to their two regular central defenders.
In the early part of the season Ashley Williams admitted he was struggling for his best form.
Summer recruit Chico Flores, meantime, appeared a little rash at times, not least when he was red-carded in the home draw with Sunderland back on September 1 for a high challenge on Louis Saha.
Earlier that afternoon, Williams had underhit a backpass to present Steven Fletcher with a goal.
Swansea looked brittle back then, yet they face the Black Cats once more tonight with the Williams-Flores being partnership being hailed as one of the best in the country.
"Sunderland at home was our fourth game of the season and foreign players always need time to adapt," Laudrup says.
"I think we have all seen now that Chico is an aggressive player but he is not dirty.
"He is a tough player, he wants to win every ball, but that day he made a mistake — his leg was too high.
"But I think he has learned a lot from that episode. He has adapted completely to the Premier League and I think he is having a great season."
Williams, meantime, is back at his dominant best, the Wales captain performing with the sort of consistent quality that Swansea's fans have come to expect.
Laudrup will require more of the same against a Sunderland outfit whose form is on the up.
O'Neill's men were wobbling in early December, when it seemed a relegation battle may be on the cards for the Wearsiders.
But they are now comfortable in mid-table having won four of the last six league games, with a 1-0 victory over Manchester City among their successes.
"Maybe Sunderland have been a little inconsistent this season, but I always expect the best from our opponents," Laudrup says.
"We have a lot of respect for them, but also we have some confidence because we have won seven games away from home this season."