Well, that’s enough moping; we’ve got a game to win tomorrow. The results on Saturday and in midweek have had a sobering effect, but I don’t think we should be throwing in the towel yet on a top-two spot – and we’re in no position to think that a play-off place is in the bag and that we can coast through the rest of the season. Wednesday and Thursday were about regrouping, today we’re girding our loins again and tomorrow we explode and destroy Watford. Bloody hell, what was in that breakfast cereal?
Maybe we had been lulled into a false sense of security as the perversity of this division encouraged us to believe that every other team would remain inconsistent and that as we got our act together the quality would rise to the top. After all, on the drive up to Scunthorpe we were discussing that three points in the bag plus a couple of favourable results for others would mean that we could go into the Palace game knowing a win would see us top the league, at least for a day. And we’ve been within touching distance of the summit at other times (was it only me that kept screaming at the big screen during the West Brom game when the commentator kept saying that the Baggies would go top if they won – we would have gone top if we’d won). So finding ourselves six points off the pace and having to overhaul at least three of the four teams above us - and a game less to do it - did have a sobering effect.
For what it’s worth we doing some points totals forecasts for those around us I had assumed midweek wins for Stoke, Watford and Bristol City. I had also pencilled in a win for West Brom. What hurt was Stoke nearly blowing a three-goal lead, Watford winning with 10 men, and Bristol City doing what we singularly failed to do at Scunthorpe. And of course us not winning. Disappointing for sure, but clearly it could have been worse. I didn’t see the game, but it’s reasonable to suppose that the changes at the back encouraged a little caution. This is not to say that those who came (Fortune for Bougherra, Semedo for Youga at half-time, and Halford playing only his second game) played badly; its rather that the alterations can work against the team functioning smoothly.
A while back I suggested that we might need to win two out of three through to the end of the season to get a top-two spot. We managed that with the Stoke, Scunthorpe, Palace batch. A draw against Sheff Wed implies a need to beat Watford and Blackpool. Pivotal games both: the first as it’s the third of five at home against our rivals and we need to keep the run going; the second as we haven’t won away for six games and need to do so. A tall order – but by no means impossible. And if we do win both games the league table would look very different than at the moment (with the following batch of three games being away to Sheff Utd and home to Bristol City and Preston).
Let’s face it, we owe Watford one, not just for the good of football but because our failure to put them away last season and this has had a big impact on our standing. Last season at The Valley we were poor in a game that was there for the taking (but which if Watford had a decent striker we could easily have lost) and at Vicarage Road a daft game saw us put out a makeshift defence to go 2-0 down, only to get level and blow the chance to win it in the last minute. This season’s game saw us dominate Watford without putting them away. A combination of poor finishing and a lapse in defence (see also Scunthorpe) nearly saw us lose, with only a goalkeeping gaffe saving us. It was a game we should have won by a couple of goals; as it was the match seems to have become a part of Watford’s rehabilitation. So, there’s a lot to put straight.
There are some selection issues for Pardew. I would expect Bougherra if fit to come back in for Fortune; there’s no doubt about Youga keeping his place. Which two from Ambrose, Sam, Cook and Thomas for the wide spots? I haven’t seen enough of Cook (OK, let’s face it I’ve no idea how good he is) to venture an opinion. And what front two combination? I would suggest that much depends on whether Pardew feels a need for Iwelumo’s presence to bolster the defence at set pieces. Just a suggestion, but it’s worth remembering that the team has functioned well with Varney and McLeod up front, given their pace and movement. McLeod doesn’t really merit a starting place, but as in rowing sometimes the boat goes faster with an unlikely combination. Gray hasn’t set the team alight as yet.
Again, it isn’t time yet to settle for a play-off place. It’s time to be bold. If we end up in the play-offs so be it, we’ll bellow all the way through another Wembley triumph. If we miss out on the play-offs we’ll look forward to running away with the league next season. But these are the consolation prizes and we’re still going for gold. How many clichés can I get in? So, arise children of the fatherland, the day of glory has arrived; against us tyranny’s bloody standard is raised … to arms citizens, form in battalions, march, march .. let impure blood water our furrows. Sorry, I’ve gone all French again.