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Let the Chase Begin

By Alan Kirwin :  01/03/2009 :  Comments (34) :
So, it couldn't have gone any better this weekend. Gooners & Villa both drawing at home against lowly opposition. We nicked an important victory against a team who, OK, can't defend too well, but can play football. The luck definitely went our way this weekend.

Was going to include paragraph about the frustrations of the Newcastle, Arsenal & Chelsea draws, where wins were merited, and even Villa at home. Truth is we could have been nip & tuck with Villa by now, or ahead. But 8 points adrift will have to do. End of the what-ifs.

Despite our shortcomings, most obviously without Arteta, I see real reasons for optimism. Here's why.

1. Teams that win things or get close enough are usually the ones who don't make stupid mistakes, particularly late in the season and partcularly late in games.

ManU are obvious examples of this, and Chelsea have been in recent years. Arsenal's mantle has slipped in this regard and Villa's is highly questionable (e.g. today).

Everton, on the other hand, seem to have discovered the art of avoiding self-inflicted wounds. Taking injuries, teenagers & all else into account, the foundation of a quite brilliant defence is providing a platform of confidence & achievement. Villa (h) is the only unfortunate exception to this.

2. There are 4 league games before the Villa-Everton game. We have Blackburn, Stoke, Pompey & Wigan. Villa have Spurs (h) and Man City, Man Utd & Liverpool all away. Now of course football is a funny old game, but I suspect not that funny. Coupled with our greater ability not to "fuck-up", as it were, I have little doubt that we'll close the gap further between now & the 6-pointer at Villa Park.

There is even a statistical possibility that Everton could be 4th by the time we meet. But whether we are or not, the chances of finding ourselves 4th by winning a Villa park must be well above average. Objectively I would expect Villa to pick up between 1 - 5 points from their 4 preceding games. Conversely I would expect Everton to collect between 8 - 12.

3. The run-in is 6 games after the 6-pointer. Villa have West Ham, Bolton, Hull, Fulham, Middlesboro & Newcastle. 4 of these teams will be fighting for their lives, whilst West Ham & Fulham are both capable of results.

We have Chelsea, City, Sunderland, Spurs, West Ham & Fulham. Broadly speaking, not much in it.

4. Villa may indeed hit another purple patch before season end, but I'm not so sure. It was great that we broke their run and they seem to be getting found out more now. I may be in a minority of one, but I'm afraid I do not rate Agbonlahor. He may be a speed merchant, but he has no composure more often than not and he doesn't seem to have a football brain. Come to think of it, judging by his "interviews".....

Meanwhile Everton..... Well, what to expect? We have form with Moyes of tailing off in the season's final quarter, sometimes dramatically so. But despite the loss of our most important offensive player, something is telling me that this season will be different.

5. Composure & pressure. It's simple. I think both at squad level and at management level, we have more composure and strength. The pressure is mainly on Villa as they almost expect to be 4th (or 3rd or 2nd if you listen to some quarters). We don't and are clearly just taking every game as it comes.

Arsenal haven't had much of a mention here and I may regret that. They also have Fabregas, Eduardo & Walcott to return and on their day they are majestic. But they aren't having too many days this season and several players are misfiring, most notably Adebayor. They are finding fairly ordinary teams very hard to breakdown, as are Villa now, whilst Everton (with few exceptions) are not.

Taking everything into account, including luck, spunk, ability, form, fixtures and the shipping forecast, the teams I expect to see occupying places 4, 5 and 6 in the premier league this season are.... Everton (just), Arsenal & Villa.

It has, in truth, been a somewhat mediocre season in the EPL. Even ManU have stuttered for most of it. Not conceding a goal for 9 months might say one thing, but not scoring more than 1 in most games says something else. They are not dominating. Today's cup final result only serves to offer up hope for anyone that meets ManU in the cup. And Chelsea are hardly ripping up trees, with tight & late 1 goal victories against average or poor teams. Even the shite have finally had their card marked and may end up empty.

If we do finish 6th then, frankly, I will still regard it as a good job. But, and it's a big but, to get 4th AND to win the cup..... now that would set all the bells ringing.

Reader Comments

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Dan McKie
1   Posted 02/03/2009 at 14:41:02

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I agree and always have thought that Agbonlahor is hugely over-rated. All pace and nowt else. For the rest, its just a case of 1 game at a time, starting with Blackburn (who have beaten us twicw so far this season). Moyes himself said there are no gimme’s in this league and hes right. 4 or 6 points from the Blackburn/Portsmouth away games would be a brilliant return.
Jason Heng
2   Posted 02/03/2009 at 14:49:33

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I don’t always understand the obsession of some about catching Villa, and how they will certainly cock up.

The next team immediately ahead of us, and losing confidence is clearly Arsenal.

One at a time.
Ciarán MacGiolla Eoin
3   Posted 02/03/2009 at 14:57:11

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The premise of this article being that Saturday was just a blip....I’m not so sure.

In my opinion, we are simply lacking in quality players..and are relying of confidence, team spirit and whatever other intangible asset we can muster..

If we don’t get the middle of the park sorted out this week, then I fear for our cup run and any chance we have at all of catching Arsenal and Villa..

Osman is not good enough, Gosling is not a winger, Castillo is like a rabbit in the headlights, and Pienaar is inconsistent.

Like it or not, we don’t have a lot to rely on. Lets see how we cope in the middle on Wednesday.
Stewart Littler
4   Posted 02/03/2009 at 15:03:34

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Jason, I think the point is that it doesn?t matter now whether we finish 5th or 6th - the prize is the same. 4th is the biggie, and I have to agree with Alan and say that the next 5 games are crucial for us - we should have enough to put Stoke and Wigan away at home, and get through to the semis, but if we can have a REALLY good run over the next 5 games, I think we will be 4th in the table as we travel to Villa Park. And whilst there?s not just Villa to consider, 3 of Arsenal?s last 6 are the top 3, Chelsea at Emirates and the other 2 away. Big game Weds then...
Jay Harris
5   Posted 02/03/2009 at 15:06:35

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Alan, I totally agree about Agbonlahor. The media always seem to want to latch on to somebody (as long as he doesnt play for Everton).

Agree with Dan about taking one game at a time though.

I have a subjective feeling that we won't get beat by the same team 3 times in a season and we owe Blackburn for that early season performance.

Ciaran I think we have now gone 14 games with only 1 defeat with all those awful substandard players who play for the cause week-in, week-out, with injuries and tired legs.
Neil Pearse
6   Posted 02/03/2009 at 15:13:21

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Reasons to be cheerful! I think it is possible Alan, largely because our defence is currently awesome (please restore Jags / Lescott, and either Hibbert or Neville is fine).

However... for me, Saha needs to have a period of fitness. He is class, and he will score. And one of our midfielders - realistically, Osman, Fellaini, or Pienaar - needs to really step up a gear. I still have hopes of Osman alongside Neville pulling it off.
Ciarán MacGiolla Eoin
7   Posted 02/03/2009 at 15:20:46

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I would suggest that those 14 unbeaten games were due to Arteta playing out of his skin in the middle alongside a Fellaini who was firing on all cylinders...Without Arteta and a Fellaini who seems unable to participate at that level (due to injury I assume)..we are reduced to those players above..who, on there own, are simply not good enough...or in the case of a fish out of water in the wrong position.

I’d love to be proved wrong with a thumping display on flowing football on Wednesday...but I honestly can’t see it.
Chris James
8   Posted 02/03/2009 at 15:29:49

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I wrote a similar piece on the mailbag thread, so I’ve run through a similar argument as you Alan.

Although I’m always happy to dream of success for the Blues, we have to be realistic about our squad and the major problems in midfield and based on our last 2 massively unconvincing performances I really can’t look beyond the next 2 games.

Blackburn: A very tough team to beat who will battle and have some genuine attacking class. They have beaten us twice and have plenty to play for.
We need a fit midfield and some real bite to win this.

Boro: By no means a great team who have capitulated repeatedly this season and deserve to be in trouble. However, they’ve proven they can raise their game when needed for the big match and will be on a high after the weekend. Let’s hope the FA Cup is seen as a distraction from their battle to stay in the prem that is dealt another blow on Wednesday at Spurs.

If we can win both of these games and get some semblance of stability to our midfield then Stoke and Pompey should be there for the taking and the season could well get very interesing indeed.
Should we struggle at Blackburn and/or get knocked out of the cup then I can’t see much more than a limp to the finish, playing tight and trying to nick the odd 1-0 win.

All in all then, roll on Wednesday. Here’s hoping for a fit Rodwell, Pienaar and Felliani!
Mike Green
9   Posted 02/03/2009 at 15:23:21

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I spent last night poring over the forthcoming fixtures and think the end of season run in is going to be VERY tight. I?ve been syaing for weeks that Villa are due a bad spell but thought it?d come when they hit RS / MU and then us one sfter the other - so the good news is it?s come a little early and hopefully will persist.

Our forthcoming games before we get them are not gimme?s. Blackburn away on Wednesday will be a horrible Alladyce affair, Stoke with give it everything, Pompey away is never easy and then we?ve Wigan at home who are 7th. So - we need to get our heads down and battle for ever point hoping that Villa slip against Spurs and MCY. Then it?s game on.

Arsenal have LFC, CFC and MU to play yet - last two are 2nd and 3rd last games of the season so unless they make hay while the suns shines now they?re going to struggle.

Bottom line is this. If we beat Villa away and can break our hoodoo at the Cottage with 3 points on the last game of the season I reckon it?s Champions League for us next year.
Paul Lally
10   Posted 02/03/2009 at 16:14:40

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Ciaran you say - I?d love to be proved wrong with a thumping display of flowing football on Wednesday...but I honestly can?t see it.
No neither can I but we are at the business end of the season with an ijury ridden squad so screw flowing football it is all about results now.
If we play crap but win games for the rest of the season so what ?

Hard work, courage and belief is what will see us through.
Alan Kirwin
11   Posted 02/03/2009 at 16:02:52

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Fully accept that this is not a done deal and, as I explained, for al sorts of reasons (terrible start to season, awful luck with injuries) I won’t, unlike some, regard 6th as abject failure & cause to mouth off about our shortcomings.

Our next 4 games aren’t 12 points in the bag. But one of the premises of my article is that we are avoiding the mistakes that others are making, specifically taking many of the fewer chances we are creating and not losing concentration at the other end.

I have no illusions about us running midfield in many of these games. I am seriously pissed off to see the consequences of Newcastle’s group violence on our players, with Anichebe out for 1 - 3 months and Rodwell (not surprisingly) ailing after the assault from Taylor.

I’d like to see us compensate for no Mikel by pushing up the pitch and defending from the front. I’d look at 3-5-2 to compensate for the lack of Arteta by being more offensive. Don’t actually think it will happen, but there are several ways to skin a cat.

It’s touch on Fellaini. I did, and do, expect this kid to shine from next season for several fairly obvious reasons. Aside from his awkward injury, we haven’t really used him to his strengths, playing him up front and focusing on his ability in the air. There’s more to this kid than heading the ball, but I don;t expect to see it this season.

Now for the controversy. Having lost our playmaker, and Rodwell for ? matches, The players I expect to step up to the plate are Neville, Piennar, Osman and, wait for it, Van der Meyde. I see Rodwell (when fit) vying with the first 3 for control of the centre, but I definitely see the use of the flanks as something we should be looking at. Sadly, and whilst I feel sorry for the guy, it doesn’t look to me as though Castillo will contribute much.

I believe that all of this team are better footballers than is sometimes acknowledged, even here on TW. I think the guys prefer to play it about and have strength in numbers on the floor, rather than hoofball. I believe our best chance is to avoid the hoofbal and keep it on the deck, except for set pieces.

And finally, when sharing my thoughts above, I had it in mind that so much of any sport is played in the head. This is particularly true when one approaches the business end of the season. Glory can be won & lost with 1 bad pass in the 4th minute of injury time. I requires strong management, good organistaion, concentration, talent and cool nerves. And, whilst 1 or 2 have questioned the importance of these qualities over, say, sheer talent, at this stage it’s about results and the qualities highlighted above.

That’s why I feel fairly confident.
Phil Guyers
12   Posted 02/03/2009 at 16:04:43

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Brilliant post, Alan! I love it when someone shows a bit of optimism and belief in the squad.
You may remember that you were the first to reply to my post on New Year’s Eve regarding the odds on finishing in the top 4. Everton were 25/1 which I thought was ’value’ and others thought was ’skinny’. Well now you will only get 8/1 from Skybet and the people who took 4/5 on Arsenal must be a bit sick to say the least.
I actually got 33/1 the day before my post but my pound frightened the bookies into cutting us to 20/1! That night Villa got their fluky win at Hull and they pushed us back out to 25/1.
The way I see it, my winnings will go about half way to paying for my Cup Final ticket! COYB

By the way, whilst I agree with Stewart’s broader point, the prize for 5th or 6th is not exactly the same. If we qualify for the Europa League from 6th place, we will have two qualifying rounds before the group stage (starting on 30th July) but if we qualify from 5th place or via the FA Cup then there is only one round.
Micky Norman
13   Posted 02/03/2009 at 16:39:45

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Whilst not sharing the confidence some of you guys have about the "easier" games, there’s no doubt that Arsenal and Villa must be looking over their shoulders with some worry. I think Saha is the key. If we can get a "Superkev" style end of season from this guy then anything is possible. Wednesday is a massive game and surely won’t be pretty but these sort of games are going to be what we can expect from now to the end.
14   Posted 02/03/2009 at 16:24:49

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I think one of the problems is that certain players dont look at their best when the team isnt playing well.

For example if Tiny hadnt scored would you have said he had a great game.

I take your point about Arteta but I do feel we need to make allowances for injuries and tired legs.

Look at Arsenal - booed off the pitch for ONLY drawing at home to Fulham and currently in 5th place playing some good football but not winning.

Our football may be dire without Mikky but I’ll settle for that and 6th or 5th for this season.

Then next season I would hope to have a new board in place to give the manager proper financial support to enhance the quality and quantity in the squad.
Alan Kirwin
15   Posted 02/03/2009 at 17:09:38

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More chance of an angel flying out of your arse than a new board for next season. And be careful what you wish for.

How much more do you think the squad needs? When all are fit, I’d settle for 1 or 2 more (Moutinho & M’Bia/Fernandez). That’s likely to happen without the help of a billionaire, particularly if we do grab 4th.
Phillip Mosley
16   Posted 02/03/2009 at 17:58:23

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No game will be easy. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
Andy Crooks
17   Posted 02/03/2009 at 18:17:35

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Ciaran, you are right. Blackburn has me feeling pretty anxious.
Jim Potter
18   Posted 02/03/2009 at 18:13:17

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Considering the start to the season we had - we’ve done really well. But without Arteta, I think it ain’t going to be too pretty here-on-in. But neither’s Paris Hilton and she still scores a lot.

Villa are fading, but Arsenal I fear will improve as their injuries improve. Fingers crossed that our form continues - especially as we have a real chance to win the Cup.
Ian Tunny
19   Posted 02/03/2009 at 18:17:20

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It really annoys me when people say we were lucky. You create your own luck, the league table doesnt lie they are bottom because they cant finsh and cant defend. They don't have the quality needed. The cream always rises to the top, that's why we beat them.

Was it luck that yet again Cahill leaped like a fresh water salmon beating his man and putting the ball in the back of the net? Was it unlucky that luke Moore was sold by Villa to their enemy and he missed all his chances?

No, it is no coincidence. We beat them because we are better, nothing to do with luck. The only time luck comes into it is refereeing decisions because their decisions are based on opinion which can be swayed.

Alan Kirwin
20   Posted 02/03/2009 at 18:28:14

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Jason Heng

The "obsession" about Villa, as you put it, is simply two things. Firstly, that they are 4th in the league and that means champions league, i.e. where we want to be. Secondly that some of us believe we are better than them & they have had an extraordinary run of luck with a series of undeserved snatch & grabs, including one at Goodison. Reverse that particular 6-pointer and we are more or less level with them for 4th place.

Finishing 5th rather than 6th is irrelevant aside from a bit extra prize money. Both places get you into the Europa League.
Paul Connell
21   Posted 02/03/2009 at 17:19:54

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Alan, I've been thinking along similar lines about the run-in for a while. While at this time (due to injuries) the 2 sides above us have better attacking options, I honestly think a water-tight defense is a bigger asset to have in the run-in and imo ours pissed all over Villa's and the Arse?s. I don?t know if it?s the gap between 6th an 7th but I've got a feeling we will go into the last weekend with all 3 sides in with a shout of 4th.

The reason behind this thinking is the phsycological aspect. Villa are desperate for the season to finish to cling onto what they have and Arsenal are under more pressure than anyone to get there, anything else will be seen as a failure. Contrast that with Everton and we can attack both of them in the knowledge that 6th is secure with no pressure.

To even get to the point of challenging though will have win games at bogie grounds. We don?t normally take points at Blackburn, Portsmouth of Fulham but IMO anything less than 12 points from these will probably end our challenge. The Villa and Chelsea games will then take care of themselves.

Wednesday is a massive night, the Bolton performance showed just how much we feed off momentum. A decent performance and 3 points will lead to an even better one on Sunday and reinstate the belief we can play well without Arteta and keep winning.
Phil Roberts
22   Posted 02/03/2009 at 20:29:11

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Paul - thanks for the smile. I quote "We don?t normally take points at Blackburn, Portsmouth of fullham but IMO anything less than 12 points from these will prob end our challenge."

I think it is only United and the Shite that can take 12 points from 3 matches and then only with the assistance of the FA and to make sure they finish in the top 4.

But I know what you were meaning. Exciting innit!
Micky Norman
23   Posted 02/03/2009 at 20:40:09

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I don’t really like all this predicting results stuff as it always makes me nervous but the maths doesn’t look great. Last year we got 65 points for 5th place. Now we have 11 games left and need 2 points per game average to beat that. It’s a hell of a task. If we win our 5 remaining home games that gives us 15 of those points leaving 7 to be picked up on our travels - not accounting for home slips. It’s a very very tough ask.
Dave Wilson
24   Posted 02/03/2009 at 19:47:02

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Thats an awful lot of predictions for someone who doesnt do predictions, nevertheless, a stirring post and I liked the way you immediately put the "what ifs" to bed.
I have said all season that we would reel Villa in, but things changed at Newcastle.
Its as if we are in a grand national, we WERE full of running and closing on the horses ahead, but Artetas injury feels like we’ve twatted the third last fence, sure the horses in front of us can still be caught, but how much has it taken out of us.

Blackburn wont be pretty, but Big Sams side are in a relegation fight, it was never going to be pretty.
Some people have pointed out, that one or two of our boys are hardly out of the top drawer, difficult to argue, but they are at least on a par with most of the players they will come up against.

Its about desire now, the will to win. Our defence will be fine - whoever plays.
We will ask much of young Rodwell and I prey Saha stays injury free and can be the deciding factor in games that can go either way

A lot of things have to go in our favor, we’ll need our share of luck, but Alans right, of course we can grab fourth.

Keep the faith
Paul Connell
25   Posted 02/03/2009 at 22:32:42

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I?ll take my maths mishap on the chin, that?s what comes from typing on an iPod touch, you forget to concentrate!
Jimmy Rimmer
26   Posted 02/03/2009 at 23:39:15

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I think the Blackburn game is a massive game for us. From here on in, the season will be all about momentum. We have it at the moment - WBA don’t - hence the result despite contrasting performances.

We need to keep our momentum and confidence going certainly ahead of the FA Cup game (let’s face it - a trip to Wembley would be awesome) and then into the Villa game.

Any defeat between now and Villa could see the wheels fall off. A continuation of our recent form up to that fixture and who knows - maybe Alan could be right. I pray he is!

For me, it could easily go either way. I like to be optimistic, but I still like to check how many points the likes of West Ham and Citeh are behind us!
Jason Broome
27   Posted 03/03/2009 at 01:48:56

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Nice positive post Alan.

However first and foremost we have to beat Blackburn on Wednesday. Accomplish that and I?ll believe.

It?s a tricky ground with an industrious manager. Allardyce has a way of grinding out results and both Santa Cruz and McCarthy are match winners. Blackburn don?t know when they?re beaten. They will fight till the death.

It will have to be a blood & guts performance from us to get anything out of that game.

Arsenal and not Villa has always been the team to beat. Villa?s number is up! They?re showing all the symptoms of altitude sickness and are running out of ideas as well as fitness.

Arsenal know how to qualify for Champions League football, while Villa are still groping in the dark.

Underestimating them now is a foolhardy game. They have been there before and know the way. At this time of year they are full of composure and fully capable of winning their remaining fixtures, regardless the opposition.

Wenger is no fool, he knows what he has to do. Arshavin?s fitness will ultimately improve and Rosicky is set to join that impressive list.

I wouldn?t underestimate a Tiger even when it?s sleeping. End the season higher than Arsenal and our Champions League aspirations will take care of itself!
Michael Devine
28   Posted 03/03/2009 at 02:25:36

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Have the belief: 3-1 win to the blues... Saha 2 Lescott 1. Come on you blue boys!
Alan Kirwin
29   Posted 03/03/2009 at 09:59:23

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Jason - I never take any game for granted with Everton, even when we’re flying. And when we’re flying without one of our main engines, well, it will be tough.

Losing Arteta, Anichebe, Hibbert & Rodwell, and the imbalance that causes, is hard to take. My confidence derives mostly from our solidity and the fact that we don’t seem to be screwing up, whereas both Arsenal & Villa do. I remain an admirer of Arsenal, but they have had a misfiring season. Sure, they have some great players to return, so we’ll see. They also have an awkward run in.

If I was a betting man, and I am most definitely not, then I would expect Villa to finish 6th. And then I broadly agree with your premise that we need to beat Arsenal to get 4th. My original post was first & foremost to plant some optimism as to why & how we could finish on a high. Despite an outrageously bad injury situation, there are still one or two reasons to be cheerful, and I think these reasons are important reasons.

Bottle, confidence, spirit, cock-up avoidance. These will all matter over the next 3 months as much as how good you are. I’m confident, with every finger & toe crossed.
Peter Howard
30   Posted 03/03/2009 at 11:42:48

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Dave W
I like the Grand National analogy.
Let?s hope the rest of the season is played in thick fog.I can just hear Michael O? Hare (don?t think he spelt it this way) saying ;
"...... and Aston Villa has fallen, Arsenal has fallen and through all this mayhem, here comes Everton !....... "
Alan Kirwin
31   Posted 03/03/2009 at 12:17:27

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Peter - lovely analogy, brought a smile.
Alan Clarke
32   Posted 03/03/2009 at 12:35:55

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Villa have hit the rocks, O’Neill is showing the strain. It is always far harder to stay at the top than it is to come from behind (so the wife tells me!) but Villa will find it very tough now. Those 2 Stoke goals and being knocked out of the Uefa cup will massively deflate them.

Blackburn are terrible and are not yet a true Allardyce team, Villa rolled them over easily and I expect the same from us. 2-0 goals from set pieces. That’ll set us up nicely for the weekend. I’d still gladly take the FA Cup over a 4th place finish tho.
Jason Broome
33   Posted 03/03/2009 at 17:03:21

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I hear you Alan. No harm in being optimistic. Enjoyable read!
Paul Connell
34   Posted 03/03/2009 at 15:43:58

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I think predictions of an easy win are a bit off the mark. I am all for positive posts and belief but it?s really easy to fall into the trap looking at Blackburn's league position and get over confident. Their form since Allardyce took over has probably been closer to top half.

I remember our away trip to Wigan thinking it was 3 points in the bag. IMO, some Everton players shared my complacency and the result was one of the few occasions we?ve been out-fought this season.

I expect a difficult game where we will probably have less posession than Blackburn. Despite this, they should find it difficult to break us down which means we just need to create 3 or 4 openings to give Saha and Tiny a chance. I predict an Everton win 1-0, we may need some of Villa's luck tho...

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