So, other than the PL defeat to Arsenal, the fact the new stadium still isn’t open, the fact Poch is off to United or Real or only staying because he’s a limp and trophy-less bottle-job patsy, things are looking okay, just about, I suppose: We scraped a draw against Barca-B to limp into the knock-out stages of the CL, we just about scraped a win against Burnley to keep Chelsea in fourth for a week longer than anyone expected us to, and we fluked a couple of route one goals against Arsenal-lite to progress in a cup no-one is interested in unless Spurs fail to win it (in which case it suddenly morphs into a major trophy Poch is too much of a bottle-job-patsy to guide us to, and something else to beat Levy over the cranium with).
Although, as okayish as I grudgingly admit these flukey results have been, we could seriously have done without the two-legged semi against Chelsea, because, let’s face it (ignoring the fact the last times we’ve played them at theirs or ‘ours’ we’ve done them 3-1) they always stuff us. And, even if we do somehow fluke a win, we’ll only get stuffed in the final against City, which will demoralise us for the second leg of our CL tie against Dortmund which is going to happen a mere nine days later, so yeah, if you ask me, we’d have been better off losing to Arsenal or Barca or both. All this progression. It’s just papering over the cracks.
Seriously, despite the stadium delay, the lack of a pre-season, the lack of signings, the constant swirl of belittling and negative media bullshit, we’re third in the league, still in every cup competition we entered, and – definitely since the Chelsea game – have been creating a good number of chances per game and playing some lovely football (and I feel we’d steadily been improving in these respects for quite a few weeks before we took apart the unbeaten Chelsea).
And, with every passing week, we’re seeing more and more evidence that Poch has come on leaps and bounds in terms of rotating his squad and making in-game changes: Only the decision to rest Toby for the Arsenal PL game looks questionable, and even though that was a decision that obviously backfired, had Toby played in that game and not been available for subsequent games for any reason, we might not now be in the knock-out stages of the CL and five points clear of our selfie-loving immigrant neighbours, because he’s been as great as ever in all the games he’s played since. And there are still no guarantees playing Toby against Arsenal would have altered that result. As Taff pointed out on a previous bloeug, it’s not like we’ve never lost a game Toby has started in.
Elsewhere in the squad, Davies has upped his game at left-back and done a job for us in the middle when called upon. Skipp looked good in his full PL debut. Walker-Peters will not face sterner tests than he did against Barca and I felt he came through that okay, on the whole. Kane, as ever, is Kane, and Eriksen is Eriksen again after a slow start to the season: Son, too, has fully recovered from an understandable slow start. Even Rose seems to be getting back to his best. And Sissoko (if you turn away when you see he’s lining up to shoot) has continued his metamorphosis from whatever he was to whatever he is, with his performance against Barca underlining just how important he is becoming to us: Also, it was his willingness to attempt to run the ball between two defenders in Leicester’s box which created the space for Son to score the opener for us that night, with the move coming just a few moments after the excellent Dele Halli (™ – Antspurs) had caused havoc doing the same sort of thing on the opposite side of the Foxes area.
Gazzaniga looks an upgrade on Vorm, too, though two acts of distribution on Wednesday made me wonder if it was Hugo in a Gazzaniga suit. And, talking of Hugo, he’s been looking much more solid for us lately, which, maybe, is down to the fact Gazzaniga has put in strong performances each time he’s been handed the gloves, finally applying some pressure to our esteemed number one, who, for me, is still our number one and still one of the best in the league.
All in all, as far as this dumb-dumb’s concerned, it’s been a very enjoyable few weeks, and the best first half to a season I can remember since… since… well, I wouldn’t like to say, but definitely since Redknapp’s day. PL wise, the only team we’ve lost to who we shouldn’t really be losing to is Watford; that game – plus, maybe, the defeat to the Dippers, where I did take some solace from the fact we should have had a penalty at the death which might have won us an undeserved draw – is the only performance that’s left me totally stone cold; as unpleasant and deserved as the defeats to City and Arsenal were, we at least had a go in those games. We’ve beaten United and Spammers away and Chelsea at home. In the Carabo, we’ve beaten Spammers and Arsenal away (meaning, I think, Anfield is now the only major domestic ground Poch hasn’t led us to victory at – yet). In the CL, we’ve become one of something like only sixteen teams to ever qualify from their group having only one point from the opening three games, and, in all honesty, should have cavorted to second with an away draw against Inter and an away win against PSV, outcomes that were well within our grasp in both games. The defeat at Wembley to Barca was nothing to be ashamed of either, and other than Hugo’s howler and the score-line, I don’t see how most of our fans could not have enjoyed watching that game.
Our recent PL wins over Leicester and Burnley – games we lost and drew last year – also mean we’re now an impressive eleven points better off than we were following games against equivalent teams last season, and a still impressive eight points better off than we were after the same number of games, where we’d just defeated Stoke 5-2 and Brighton 2-0 in back-to-back ‘home’ fixtures and were seventh in the table behind Arsenal, Dippers, Burnley, Chelsea, and both of the Manchester massives. We were just about to head up to City for a 4-1 shellacking, though, which would leave us flailing helplessly 21 points in their wake in the miserable Manchester rain (don’t go up there, Poch – it’s all grey and dreary and wet (sorry, Northern Spur; only joking).
This time around we’re five points behind them and six points off Dippers, heading to Everton, who are eighth and seem to be having a bit of a mixed bag of things, with their last two home PL games seeing them draw with Watford and Newcastle, and their last two away games seeing them lose to City and – albeit unfortunately – Dippers. Slightly further back, though, they softened Chelsea up nicely for us with a nil-nil at The Bridge the weekend before we got to spank the third team out of three in this season’s title race for the second time this calendar year. Other than that, though, there’s no real scalps for the Toffees to boast of this season, and the Spammers one-threed them at Goodison following four hilarious defeats in Pellegrini’s first four games in charge.
Talking of Goodison, though, it’s yet another ground I rarely feel we do well at, but, again, recent history shows our record there isn’t too shabby, with Poch leading us to a one-nil win in his first season, nil-nil and one-one draws in his second and third seasons, and a none-too shabby three nil win in the fourth round of fixtures last season. With relatively straight-forward games for everyone around us – except, perhaps, Dipper’s becoming only the second top-six team to win at Wolves last night – a repeat of that points-return is the minimum required to help the team and the club keep on papering over the cracks. It’s a bit concerning how close Merseyside is to Manchester, though, so perhaps the club should insist that Poch doesn’t travel to this one: As anyone who’s not a confirmed dumb-dumb will (all too willingly) tell you, there’s not much chance he’ll bother to come back.