I’ve got a bad feeling about tonight’s game away to Watford. At stake is a place in the semi-finals, alongside such luminaries as Derby and Burnley, and in our way today stand a team near the bottom of the Championship, who have just sacked their manager. It’s a cracking opportunity to progress, and the route to winning some silverware and securing European qualification is as well-lit and sign-posted as any competition will ever be, with the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool, l’arse and even Villa, Man City and Everton all having fallen by the wayside. There’s no doubt we’re good enough in theory to beat Watford away, and either of Derby or Burnley should we draw them in the semi. (The other quarter-final, tonight features Blackburn and the under-strength Man Utd). However, I’m already resigned to the fact that Watford will raise their game, while we’ll trot out one of those perfunctory, sloppy, mind-elsewhere performances. That would be one hell of an opportunity blown, especially having done the hard work of beating a couple of Premiership teams to get this far. With the chances of European qualification via the league table still looking a long shot, I’m already seething at the thought that we’re going to blow it tonight.
In particular the lack of energy from our central midfield is a cause for concern. Who’d have thunk it, but I actually lament the absence of Jenas at the moment. Zokora and Huddlestone simply aren’t good enough to boss a game as a central midfield pairing, certainly at Premiership level. As a pair they seem to possess neither action nor plot – both sit deep, neither supplementing attack and neither forming a particularly strong shield for the defence. They seem to need the presence of a third body alongside them in central midfield, and with Modric and Jenas likely to be out injured this looks like a luxury we won’t be able to afford. (nb, while he’s got the right attitude I broadly stick O’ Hara in the same “needs-two-people-alongside-him” category). Thudd in particular seems to need a couple of minders – or a two-goal lead – in order to be at his best, and while his passing, long and short, can be superb when he’s on song and the team is on top, too often he’s a slightly lumbering passenger when the chips are down. In a cup-tie away to a lower-league team I fear we won’t show stomach for the fight, but instead be out-muscled and out-bustled.
The other worry tonight is ‘Arry’s attitude towards any game that isn’t in the Premiership. He keeps banging on about how we’re in a relegation fight, and last week suggested that he rued our progress in the Uefa as it meant more games. I hope beyond hope that this is just the line he’s feeding the media, and that in the privacy of his own twitchy head he appreciates quite what a good chance this is for silverware. I appreciate that avoiding relegation is our priority, but I really don’t see that as a reason to surrender our places in the Uefa and Carling cups – especially with the draw for the latter looking so inviting. Besides, there are mantras such as “Winning breeds confidence” to be trotted out at moments like this.
Redknapp’s team selection tonight will speak volumes. As mentioned, without Jenas and Modric the midfield already has a dubious look to it. At the back Ledley is likely to be rested, understandably enough. Beyond that I hope to see Woodgate, Corluka, Bale (despite his current poor form) and Lennon involved from the start. What I’d be rather wary of is half a dozen or more changes, with the likes of O’ Hara, Gilberto, Taraabt, Rocha and Bostock all flung together. Even if the players brought in are of a half-decent standard, changing more than half the personnel is inevitably going to result in an unsettled and unsure starting line-up. Presumably the reality will be somewhere in between – ie maybe four or five changes, with the core of players all members of our Premiership squad, and a couple of kids on the bench. It still fills me with pessimism. The Carling Cup might be the smallest of the trophies, but a lot of teams (not least l’arse) would trip over themselves to win two trophies in two years. It’s a cracking opportunity – Arry, please don’t blow it through your team selection.