It is strange that no matter how well (or badly) we play from week to week I am always full of optimism by the time the next game comes around. Sheffield United have a strong squad and with a decent manager (Sorry Robson) they should be a shoe in for a top six place. Still, however, I find myself looking at the table, following on from Stoke's defeat at Preston, and I find myself considering what the gap to the top two will be if Watford and Bristol City both lose tomorrow and we win.
This weekend is massive for us, as it is for all of the top teams. Stoke play QPR on Sunday, and Ipswich go to Southampton, but Bristol City play Hull, Watford play Burnley and West Brom play Plymouth. Thus we must make (or lose) ground on the teams just above us or just below us. As I haven't completely given up hope of making the top two (I know, I know, my desk is covered in, and my hands are full of, straws) I am inclined to hope that Plymouth, Hull and Burnley all win. Assuming we also win, that would leave us six points behind Bristol City with them coming to The Valley next Tuesday. Game on!
If we are going to lose at Sheffield United, however, then I want wins for Bristol City, Watford and West Brom otherwise we will find ourselves with three wins in sixteen and could well be sitting as low as 9th in the table.
I saw an interview with Tony Pulis on Tuesday and he was talking about not letting things go to his players heads, and that he just needed them to keep going. I had a funny feeling that he was worried that they would believe they could take their foot off the gas. I have respect for Stoke, even though I hate the way they play, but I cannot see them winning games if they give anything less than 100%. On the other hand I believe that we and West Brom, and to some smaller extent Watford have the quality that we can pick up points if the players have a bad (or lazy) day at the office. I think Sheffield United have that kind of quality also, but they clearly haven't performed anywhere near often enough this season.
Thus I still believe that there are possibilities that we could catch those above us. I don't think we will as I don't see us winning enough games (not even nearly enough in fact) to claim automatic promotion, but I refuse to give up completely. It is perhaps too early to look at remaining fixtures with a full dozen games left, but I'll share my thinking with you anyway.
Stoke; Pld 65, Pts 62 - 1st. Could well have similar problems as they did at Preston. It is very difficult to put more effort into every game than your peers for a whole season. even though I think they have a playing style that is well suited to beat the also rans they could slip up a couple of times and still have to play Burnley (H), Watford (A) and Bristol City (H).
Bristol City; Pld 34, Pts 61 - 2nd. With a promotion last season (finishing 2nd) they could well have the mentality to hold their nerve as the run in approaches. However, there must be real questions as to the quality that they have, and if their bubble will burst if they suffer a few bad results. Still have to play Hull (H), Charlton (A), Watford (H), Plymouth (H), Wolves (H) and Stoke (A). Ok I know that Wolves are not exactly flying high, but they could be by 12th April.
Watford; Pld 34, Pts 60 - 3rd. I believe that Watford have had their last wobble and I can see them coming strong in the coming weeks. They have already demonstrated this season that they can go on a run of wins and if their last ten games are anything like their first ten then they should finish no lower then they are now, and probably in the automatic promotion places. They do, however, have the toughest run in. They still have to play Burnley (A), Bristol City (A), Stoke (H), Plymouth (A), Hull (A) and West Brom (A).
West Brom; Pld 33, Pts 55, Silly Goal Difference - 4th. Clearly a talented squad with good football and loads and loads of goals. There is no way of knowing how long it will be before they rediscover their form, but I have a feeling that it might just coincide with their FA Cup run. The longer they stay in that competition the better off we will be, unless we have to face them in the play offs, of course. They still have to play Plymouth (H), Charlton (A), Watford (H) and Wolves (A) - local derby. They also have Bristol Rovers (A) in the FA Cup Quarter-Final which would suggest that they will be in a Semi-Final which should be very disruptive to their league form.
Charlton; Pld 34, Pts 52. We are not out of it, but we really need to start a run of wins if we have any hope of catching at least three of those teams.
Back to tomorrow, and by 5pm we could well be looking forward to a massive six pointer at The Valley on Tuesday evening, or we could be starting to wonder if we are actually going to miss out on the playoffs, heaven forbid. The signing of Scott Sinclair should give us a little more quality in the squad, but to be fair I don't think we are short of wingers right now. Having said that, if he is better than what we have then assuming he can gel quickly enough he should be a useful addition. We have been short of creativity and from what I've seen of him he can run at defenders so may well make a few chances and with Varney's recent form I would expect him to be able to put some of them away.
We have failed to score enough goals this season. The defense has (in the main) been good. Before last Saturday we had the meanest defense away from home in the league (division). I would, therefore, expect a low scoring game tomorrow, particularly if Pardew reverts back to a 4-5-1, which I think he should do. Sheffield United will be difficult to break down (as always), but will probably not pose a great threat up front if we have that extra cover for the defense. Thus I would be tempted to start with Semedo in the middle and may well start with Big Chris as the lone striker. I would, however, have in mind to change it in the second half and put Varney and/or Gray on to test the fatigue of the players that played 120 minutes on Wednesday night.
That said, I have no idea how Pardew will line them up. Cook has only just got into the side and he now has another (and probably a better) left winger to choose from. Gray has failed to really set the world alight since he arrived, but may be preferred as the lone striker as he holds the ball up so well. We may well see Moutaouakill back in the side as from what I've read it is suddenly a lot less of a secret as to why Reading and Sunderland let Halford go after almost no games. Youga will be back in, but with Thatcher coming back to fitness he needs to find some form if he expects to keep his place. The big debate for me is the centre pairing. McCarthy has been a revelation in recent weeks and if Bougherra is still out we may well see Sodje back in the starting line up. The truth is, however, I have no idea.
I also have little idea as to what the score will be. The only thing I am sure of is that tomorrow will be a defining day in our season. If we were in the Premier league I'm sure Sky would give tomorrow a name. 'Super Saturday' is just so lazy. I think I'll call it 'Premier Decision Day'. After tomorrow it may well be two from four, or two from nine - eleven games to go and eight points separating 2nd and 9th and six points from 2nd to 6th. After tomorrow I think I will know, in my heart, if we are fighting for automatic promotion or the play offs. Twelve wins on the bounce would probably still win us the league. I don't want to be too greedy. Ten or eleven and runners up would be perfectly acceptable. Come on Pardew, it's not that much to ask is it. You can even lose the other two if you must.
Cone on you Reds!