However, whilst not an excuse, I think it was noticeable that a number of players were “running on empty” having played in pretty much every game, whilst a number are carrying injuries which, in a larger squad would have meant their being rested. The two-week break can only be a good thing in this regard. So what for the rest of the season once hostilities re-commence with a visit from Wigan?
The FA Cup now consists of (hopefully) two games. I have no doubt we will give Man Utd a game on the 19th. Win or lose, I think the surroundings and atmosphere will mean that the players rise to the occasion and this might just see us through to the Final. From thereon in it would be again be up to the players to perform on the day, as I would fancy our chances against Arsenal in particular.
I am more concerned about how we perform in the League games. On paper, the majority of games are very winnable. With Villa in freefall, the only fixture you would have said looked dodgy is the Chelsea game. However, that view is based on the Everton team’s performances pre-Portsmouth and the key seems to be Cahill. It was no coincidence that when he went off against Stoke, the latter got back in the game and ditto for the Pompey game; no Cahill, no bite in midfield. Keeping the guy fit until the end of May will be critical to ensuring we retain 6th and push on for a potential 5th spot. (I think our chance to push for 4th came and went when we failed to capitalise on poor Arsenal and Villa results in February).
Saha’s performance last Saturday was turgid and has led me to the conclusion that he is an impact player at best; so let’s keep him as that, safely on the bench with a view to mixing it up in the last half hour of games, when he has proved he can have a real influence for us. I also think that his inclusion on Saturday from the start upset what I see as a growing understanding between Jo and Fellaini. The latter was not comfortable playing behind the front pairing of Jo and Saha; whereas in previous weeks when Jo played a solitary striking role, it was a lot clearer for the midfielders as to what to do. Moreover, I think Jo takes more responsibility when alone; last week he hid behind Saha and Fellaini too much.
Having said all that, neither striker exactly got the kind of service which would allow them to shine. This comes back again to Cahill. Osman (love him or hate him) and Pienaar are the only playmakers we have left in the side and I appreciate that even saying this I am using that term very loosely. Nevertheless they can only go forward with confidence and try to be creative if the midfield is robust behind them; without Cahill, it leaks like the proverbial sieve.
Defensively we are still very solid. I think the marking was poor for Crouch’s goals but I believe it was a one-off; another referee would have given a foul against Kanu for blocking Howard from reaching the ball for their second. I don’t agree with the criticism Howard has had in recent weeks; I think he has improved significantly this season; from being a shot-stopper, he now generally commands his box and catches the ball with much more confidence. Still with some room for improvement, he is one of the best in the Premier League and I for one am delighted he plays for us as, at his age, his best years should still be ahead of him.
So in conclusion, I am praying to any God who will listen that Moyes uses the next two weeks well; resting players, giving old Mick Rathbone the freedom of the treatment room to work on the injuries to Osman, Hibbert et al, working on the errors which crept in at the back last Saturday and (above all else) keeping Cahill wrapped in cotton wool. Sod his national side, Moyes needs to keep him here to rest that calf muscle. All of which will hopefully see us back in Europe AGAIN.
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