It’s rather a sign of the times that our once Cup-specialised bunch of ragtag disco-lovers now shrug scornfully at the prospect of this knock-out fare, and instead focus their energies on maintaining consistent League form. Quite the reverse of those spirit-crushing 90s, when our heroes resolutely avoided finishing in either the top or bottom 6, season after season, and pinned everything on Chas’n’Dave’n’Sinton. Now the very antithesis of a ‘Cup-side’, the lilywhite mob exude nous, professionalism and knowing winks as they grind out away victories and get their paws dirty in scavenging last-minute equalisers against Man Utd. A corner, it would appear, has been turned.
Mind you, this theory will fall apart somewhat if we make a mess of things tonight. Meekly folding in a Cup tie at Leeds is all well and good as long as they bally well slam down on the throttle once more when Premiership matters restart tonight, and thrash the whatnot out of Norwich.
AVB: Doing His Damnedest To Get Us A New Striker
While he may present himself as coolly gravel-voiced and demure in his press conferences, nonchalantly dismissing the kooky concept of employing strikers when we have midfielders and full-backs and goalkeepers who can effortlessly adapt to life as a forward, I fervently hope that behind closed doors AVB assumes a maniacal grin and chases Daniel Levy across the south-east, flecks of spittle flying from his mouth and wielded axe swinging violently as he shrilly demands that the money-man buy us another all-singing, all-dancing, top-rate striker before the blasted window closes tomorrow night.
One can only hope. Before his nocturnal alter ego is unleashed AVB will have to make do with the ludicrous square-pegging of Dempsey/Sig again tonight, if Defoe is still unfit. Heaven help us. Still, the Dembele juices will presumably flow again tonight, following the near-scandalous admission that he could not really be bothered in the Cup, and our handsome young Welshman has good history against this lot.
Aside from Defoe’s health there is a concern in this corner of the interweb that all the Lucozade in the world won’t have replenished Scott Parker, after he had to be scraped off the Elland Road turf at full-time on Sunday, having given every ounce of energy he has ever possessed. All of which means that an appearance of some sort from sprightly young Herr Holtby might be on the cards.
If we really are now a top(ish) league team, rather than sporadic Cup mercenary, now might be the time to show it. Just a thought chaps (and that includes you, Dembele).
Naturally enough, murmurs will be murmured and chins stroked about the various merits or otherwise of our heroes going hell for leather at the FA Cup. The opinion that matters most is that of our shrill-voiced leader AVB, and in a far-from-straightforward gambol such as this, team selection will say much of his priorities.
The drum being banged at AANP Towers this weekend is to forget about the children and instead please think of Aaron Lennon. While the handsome young Welshman remains tormentor-in-chief, Lennon has added Sagacity in Decision-Making to the already well-established qualities of Feet Moving At A Blur, Left-Back Left Gasping and Jazz Hands Whirring. However, while Bale is quite the physical specimen these days, I do hold my breath every time Lennon winds up and sprints off, for fear that one of his hamstrings might roll their eyes and just give up on him. For an FA Cup 4th Round tie I would dare to recommend that Lennon and his little legs are spared the rigours of a full 90 minutes, or even a full 45. Give the blighter the day off.
The choices at full-back will be of interest, with Walker below par and Naughton not really in his comfort zone on the left – if he is feeling particularly adventurous might AVB put Benny on the left and Naughton on the right? Hudd, Dempsey and Sigurdsson might also expect some game time, and Friedel will presumably be in goal. It has been mentioned that our heroes have a squad strong enough to field two distinct and quite capable starting XIs, and while choice of strikers in the second XI would be of interest, the gist of it is clear enough. Time for our heroes to give a pointed reminder of aforementioned squad depth.
I suspect glasses were raised and chortles sounded across the country at that particular moment of karma, the dying seconds of Fergie time creating quite the poetic moment. By all means do pause a moment, and indulge in another snigger.
Aside from the general national moment of Schadenfreude, and observing through spectacles of a lilywhite hue, it was jolly encouraging to see our heroes plug away in the second half with a bit more cunning and purpose than in previous matches (and the first half) against massed ranks of deep-lying defenders. Where last week we were soporific and desperately short of ideas, this time we did at least fashion some chances, and show a little variety in our attempts to wriggle our way netwards. Glory be, there was movement around the edge of the area, and sneaky diagonal passes, and Lennon as likely to cut infield as go wide – but most eye-catchingly of all from this vantage point was the sight of Dembele jinking his way through a couple of challenges before feeding Dempsey in the area (for that second half chance saved by De Gea). There followed much chin-stroking at AANP Towers, for there in a microcosm was the idea, occasionally mooted but quickly suppressed like some dissident voice in a totalitarian state, that maybe Dembele could play… whisper it… further forward…?Back in the real world ‘tis unlikely ever to happen, for the AVBmeister appears not to roll thus, but having rolled my eyes so forcefully that the dashed things flew from their sockets and landed in the snow as Dempsey dribbled in the wrong direction for the umpteenth time, before turning back the way he came, running into more traffic, circling a single blade of grass and eventually imploding while United emerged with the ball to counter-attack, I did rather wish that Dembele could be shunted upfield to orchestrate matters in the hole. Instead, the onus on tearing forward from midfield fell upon Scott Parker in the first half, and various cul-de-sacs were duly entered.
Still, the thing ended cheerily enough, and richly deserved it was too. As noted, a tip of the cap to Lennon, the font of most things good today, and the late introduction of the left-footed Benny at left-back had me wondering why he was not selected from the off, but in general our heroes deserve credit for hammering away so insistently in the second half. Just a single point to add to the pile it may be, but in the grand scheme of things this was quite a noteworthy step.
Ah, ‘tis the unmistakeable scent of le grand fromage wafting into town. Oddly enough we find ourselves in the exalted position of being able to do the seasonal double over this lot, for possibly the first time since a wide-eyed and youthful AANP would stare transfixed at the shoulder-feints and mullet Chris Waddle and his mullet feinting this way and that. To this casual observer the champions-elect have this season hardly been the all-conquering, unstoppable juggernaut of recent times, with notable deficiencies in goal, defence and midfield for sure, but that blasted RVP seems to know a thing or two about the old net-ripple business, and there is only one of the Vertonghen-Daws-Gallas-Caulker quartet of options that I fancy to have any joy against him today. (Clue: His name rhymes with ‘Bertonghen’)As for our lot, a doleful minute’s silence has presumably been held across lilywhite abodes across the land for the repose of the knee of Sandro. The slightly unhinged Brazilian is out for the season, and one can only feel sorry for Mrs Sandro and any nursing staff involved in his recuperation, for a hyperactive young soul such as he strikes me as the worst possible nominee for sitting still with his leg up.
All of which leaves our central midfield in a pickle of sorts. Sandro may not necessarily be the most important cog in this machine, but the combo with Dembele has that same menacing air of Danny Trejo wandering the area with an Uzi on each arm – not necessarily the most effective, as Predators aficionados will testify, but a jolly imposing sight nonetheless.
In Sandro’s absence Scott Parker will step once more into the breach, and presumably run himself into the ground, like the good honest blighter he is. A most useful reserve no doubt on most weekends of the season, but if Euro 2012 delivered one rather sad truth it was that against the very best teams in Europe Parker’s indefatigable spirit only gets him so far. One crosses fingers on his behalf this afternoon.
Master Dempsey will presumably supplement the midfield today, and there is something a mite worrying about the complete silence over attacking reinforcements this January, with Adebayor now sunning himself on his African jolly. One hopes to heavens that Master Defoe does not chip a fingernail this afternoon, because a new big-name forward there be not, neither hither nor in the offing.
A difficult basket of figs to call, this one. Our heroes have already shown this season that they can beat this lot, particularly if the handsome young Welshman is in the mood, but emphatic defeats to City, Chelski and l’Arse pointed to shortcomings on these big occasions. Weather permitting, we’ll find out soon enough.
We probably ought to pour ourselves a stiff drink and get used to this. Those of us who like a dash of rip-snort with our morning Weetabix and Brahms took to banging our heads against the nearest wall yesterday, as not for the first time this season there were embarrassed coughs all round as our heroes raided the ideas cabinet and finding it bare. (Before all hell breaks loose on keyboards throughout the land this would probably be a good juncture at which to ring a loud bell with some gusto and hire Brian Blessed to holler “Context good folk, what?” Our brave lilywhites are pootling along at a healthy rate of knots, ripple the net just about every week and are even quietly doing a healthy trade in clean sheets these days. Top Four seems likelier than not, and in the grand scheme of things, AVB and chums are fulfilling their side of their bargain.)
However… the one-touch, pulse-racing stuff of yesteryear ‘tis not, and it bothers the dickens out of me to see them labour so against these defensive opponents. Anyone who has scuttled to their White Hart Lane seat pre kick-off on matchday will have seen that just before they disappear down the tunnel to don their kits our heroes bound around like particularly exuberant lambs playing 5/6-a-side, one-touch stuff – how dashed maddening then that come the game itself they played as if their lives depended upon taking at least two touches, giving opponents time to reorganise and avoiding off-the-ball movement at all costs. Curiously enough, the only moment of first-time ingenuity I can really recall was from Scott Parker of all people, prodding a second half pass into the path of Bale in the area.
QPR understandably enough stuck just about everyone in the west London area behind the ball and inside their area, and also took the depressingly effective step of dropping their full-backs so deep that neither Bale nor Lennon had a bally inch of space into which to run down the flanks. Alas, faced with a hoopy wall as far as the eye could see, our heroes simply did not have the zip or ingenuity to carve out an opening. Oh for a cunning diagonal ten-yard pass in the final third (dare I mention VDV?) or a mischievous scally with dribble-dust in his boots (dare I mention even Taaraabt, or someone of his ilk, to be hauled from the bench for bothersome afternoons such as these?)
And breathe… There ends the rant.
(Actually that’s a lie, for one further target of AANP ire is presumably boarding a plane for the African Cup of Nations. He may not have been overwhelmed by quality service, but Adebayor did not have the air of a man dashing hither and thither as if the need to score for his employers bordered upon obsession.)
The good fight for fourth is being fought pretty well, but the lack of off-the-ball movement and first-time passing will remain a bête noire in this corner of the interweb for many an inebriated evening. Still, AVB presumably does not just wile away his hours mixing cigarettes and alcohol in the wee small hours in order to makes his voice disappear beneath the realms of human detection, but does actually give some thought to such things. It will probably look a jolly sight more attractive next week against United, such are the quirks of the game.
The keener students of history amongst us no doubt recall that it was around this time last year that our whole bally season began to unravel faster than you can say “Not entirely convinced by these January transfer signings – and a spot of squad rotation hither and thither might not go amiss either, what?” An important time off the pitch then for the AVBmeister (particularly with Adebayor giving his latest display of that rock-solid commitment and dependency we have all come to know and love), but rejoice all ye of lilywhite persuasion, for on-pitch matters have panned out in rather topping manner in recent weeks. Indeed, word reaches this corner of the interweb that our glorious leader was even awarded December’s Manager of the Month gong, presumably by a team of genii who succeeded where AANP failed by erasing from memory the blasted late capitulation against Everton on 9/12/12.
Onward we gambol then, ensconced in third, but many a slip ‘twixt cup, lip and May 19th. There may not be an ‘i’ in ‘team’, nor indeed in ‘QPR’, but there are a handful in ‘Arry Redknapp’, and one imagines that for all manner of personal reasons our erstwhile leader will have been burning the midnight oil in his attempts to mastermind a final rude hand gesture in the direction of Levy and chums. This lot are therefore not to be taken lightly – although one nevertheless fancies that if we can get our noses in front at Loftus Road only complacency will let our hosts back into it (which is a rather ironic sort of statement, if you think about it).
The usual suspects will presumably line up to hand me the keys, supplemented now by fit-again Benny and Scott Parker. Some sort of valedictory gift from Adebayor would be nice, but as ever the eye-catching performances are likely to emanate from the size nines of Vertonghen, Bale and Dembele, in their own respective ways. Get this right – as they jolly well ought – and a little extra pressure will sit upon the shoulders of the other mobs by the time AANP’s Soccer Saturday Imbibing Spectacular kicks off at 3. Chin chin!
In common with more than of you I blinked and thereby missed most of the ITV highlights of this one, so the AANP analysis will this week consist of no more than verbose but ultimately vacuous generalisations, and the occasional laboured piece of wordplay. Not that different from normal then.
From the point of view of one whose observations were so minimal as to radically redefine the term ‘objective’, this appears a job satisfactorily done, with ticked boxes as far as the eye can see. Such fixtures can prove tricky (admittedly less so at home), and given this we ought probably to be grateful for being reduced to the 30-second highlights slot, it representing a distinct lack of tabloid-friendly shock-and-awe fodder. Credit then to our heroes for doing the honourable thing and ending the thing as a context before the floodlights were lit, and a nod of approval also for breaking with tradition both in scoring a couple from set-pieces and in turning early dominance into more than just the solitary goal.
Elsewhere Scott Parker was unleashed to scuttle manically from the off, Benny had a first opportunity to rediscover his groove and the handsome young Welshman at one point apparently skinned five opponents before shooting wide (although, regrettably, I have since been reliably informed that the term was but metaphorical. Shame that.)
Marvellous. Elsewhere however, the giant, unavoidable engine of January transfer doings is gently creaking into action, with the news that Herr Lewis Holtby has rather charmingly cocked a snook at that ‘orrible lot down the road and pledged his future to the lilywhites of N17, from Summer ’13 onwards. Smart chap. Now AANP is not about to pretend that it is any sort of expert on footballers plying their wares on foreign fields – or indeed domestic ones, or any other topics really, other than mindless action films and a good whisky – but the resident l’Arse supporter around these parts has somewhat dolefully informed me that the boy Holtby impressed for Schalke against his lot in the Champions League. As such, someone somewhere in the corridors of power at the Lane probably ought to pat themselves on the back and flash a knowing wink in the direction of Daniel Levy.
And for those who like their lamb skewered even more excitement awaits in Transfer Land, for it emerges that the implausibly-named whippersnapper Zeki Fryers is pootling in a lilywhite direction with a spring in his step and tearful adieus ringing in his ears from chums at Standard Liege. (And also apoplectic warbling from Sir Alex Ferguson apparently, but that particular kettle of fish is one for the FA to huddle over). Legend has it that Fryers defends and Holtby tries his luck further up the greenery, so hearty welcomes to both - but hopeful murmurings will no doubt continue that some brain-meltingly good, established, attacking types will be unveiled imminently. Toodle-pip for now.
Now here’s a Cup-tie to get the AANP juices flowing, this particular fixture being the first that AANP can remember watching on the telly-box, as a wide-eyed nipper a couple of decades back. It ended then in tears, an own-goal and ultimately a side-line in wordsmithr’y, but one would expect a straightforward lilywhite victory this afternoon, particularly on our own patch.
Having shown quite the disinclination for squad rotation in his every waking moment in charge of our heroes to date, AVB might be tempted to break the habit of a lifetime and give starting berths to patient thumb-twiddlers Hudd, Parker, Livermore, Townsend, Sigurdsson, Dempsey and possibly even Falque. He can do as he pleases of course, but if I may gently clear my throat and offer one quiet recommendation it would be that one Aaron Lennon is given the afternoon off to increase his body-art collection, or study the First Meditations of Descartes, or do whatever he does when given some time to himself. The young scamp’s performances have been of consistently high quality this season, but one fears that his blurry little legs can only take so much scuttling before they ping. Get rotating, Mr AVB.
If complacency is firmly kept behind lock and key this ought to be a smooth progression next-roundwards, and our lot being amongst the top 4/5/6 in the country, depending on your tabloid of choice, this represents a mighty strong chance of silverware. Fingers crossed we surmount the first hurdle.
All in all that amounts to a jolly productive spot of yuletide pilfering. One may certainly clear the throat and reel off the usual quibbles – 30-plus shots ought to translate into more than 3 goals; we could conceivably have been pegged back to 2-2, or worse – but all things considered we can safely say that our heroes crushed Reading, saw them driven before us, and heard the lamentation of their women. Precisely the manner in which all new years should begin.Good Times on the Right Flank
Out on t’other flank Master Sigurdsson fought the good fight well enough, and poor old Naughton can hardly be chastised for being right-footed. With Walker still determined to play the whole season without once engaging his grey matter (a mite harsh, but one gets the gist), Naughton may be given an opportunity to show what he can do at right-back before too long, particularly once Benny returns to the fold.
Elsewhere things went swimmingly enough. The Sandro-Dembele axis continues to function as all respectable axes ought, albeit with scales still tipped more toward brute-force than mind-boggling guile. The curious fascination with long-range shooting provided entertainment throughout (oh how Hudd must have itched to partake), and so much fun was had by all and sundry that even Scott Parker took time out from the 1920s to go sniffing for his first lilywhite goal.
The aforementioned quibbles around shot-to-goal-conversion and final-third guile might provide food for transfer-window thought, but 10 points from 12 over crimbo merits a doffed cap and a cheeky splash of red with the evening meal.
Curl into a ball and stick your heads in the sand, fellow believers, for yet another bout of Balelessness looms large. When previously this curse has struck us we did at least manage to eke out victory against Swansea, but the soulless display sans Bale against Everon was rather hard to stomach - no doubt about it, our heroes look a darned sight more mortal without the handsome young Welshman on the gallop.
That said, while the capacity to take on half the opposition single-handedly is very much the sole preserve of Bale, consistent selections have now given our midfield a rather imposing look, with the two-pronged juggernaut that is Sandro and Dembele doing a pretty handy job of bulldozing everything in their path in recent weeks. Guile is still rather lacking, ‘tis true (oh for some truth in the Snjeider rumours this January) but the general record of Reading to date this season suggests that a half-decent showing from our lot will suffice.
AVB’s aversion to tinkering, beyond the back-four, will presumably continue, with Dempsey/Sigurdsson for Bale the only likely change amongst the goal-getting clan, but pleasant murmurings have been made in recent hours about a return to the squad of BAE, which is heartening stuff. One probably also ought to take this opportunity to chime ‘Toodles, and much obliged’, to Cudicini as he makes his way off to Hollywood, best of luck to him.
We have been outfought and outfoxed a number of times at home already this season, on top of which Reading appear to have got their act together in recent weeks – but nevertheless, one would expect the usual second half onslaught to send us home happy today.