Last season it was Roller Coasters: this season its Snakes and Ladders. It certainly was this week; we got four points to go up the ladder, but lost Woodgate and Jenas to possible serious injuries. We gave an excellent team performance to take a point off Man. U but with Newcastle winning at Portsmouth we slid down the snake again to hover one point above the relegation places. At least it looks as if W. Brom and Blackburn are losing touch at the bottom but we cannot relax yet. Its all bunched up in the table still with 8th to 18th covered by 5pts.
We have three winnable games to come and ladders sway into view but none can be taken for granted. Away to Newcastle is not the walkover it was when we last visited and it comes after a midweek game against Spartak Moscow which is tricky because of injuries to Woodgate and Jenas and Bent's illness and because Ledley will have to be kept for Sunday. We could come a cropper in this competition if we lose this by two goals and NEC beat Udinese. However if we win it and NEC beat Udinese we could top the group. Or something like that.
Fulham at home on Boxing day should be easier but they are an awkward team to play against as we have already found .Although they haven't won away so far this season, it is not a forgone conclusion. Away to W. Brom rounds off 2008 and should launch us into the new year with a win. I would settle for a throw of 5 on the dice. That's more of a step-ladder than a fireman's turntable but even this is welcome if it helps us climb towards safety.
The Man. U game threw up a number of positives: Gomes was widely deemed man of the match; Dawson put in a vintage performance and the whole defence responded well to the absence of Ledley and the injury to Woodgate, who could be out for some time, after only ten minutes. Modric and Lennon were skilful, both caused problems and were unlucky not to score. Bentley sparkled occasionally but Pavlyuchenko and later Bent were out gunned on their own up front against Ferdinand and Vidic.
So far we've held or beaten all of the Top Four this season, though I note that Arsenal are in fact fifth. Certainly a better vantage point than when Harry arrived but we are still only 1 point from the bottom three, and yet only two wins from the Uefa places.
It looked as if Modric was part of a 5 man midfield rather than a support striker but this was perhaps forced upon us by Man. U. pressure rather than being tactical. At least the curse of the returning player didn't strike and Berbatov though showing his talents at various times in the game was not a significant factor. Although Man. U dominated the first half we had the clearer cut chances. Gomes was the star in the second half with two fine saves from Park and Giggs and competent handling throughout.
I played Snakes and ladders recently with my six year old grandson and he didn't get it at all. He went up the Ladders and up the Snakes as well. If only we could, but then again perhaps he's not as silly as he pretends. A useful tip there Harry.
What to make of Harry's apparent 'blasting' of the current first team squad? Well looking at Harry's words in the context of our current position and ignoring the inevitable newspaper slants you cant argue with a lot of it.
We are in a relegation battle still and we need some strengthening and backup to make the team a viable top four challenger. He has certainly improved the performance of the squad but by 'proper' players I assume he means 'better' players. It sounds as if he is following the advice of Danny Blanchflower who famously advised 'equalising before the other team scores' , putting the blame for possible failure on Levy's lack of investment.
Whether this apparent undermining of the squad, a change from his arm round the shoulder approach, is wise at this delicate time is debatable. I would argue that the constant changes of manager and the consequent influx of new players has done much to unsettle the club over the past few years and might explain our poor starts particularly in the past two seasons.
Recent write-offs ,Gomes and Dawson were heroes on Saturday; Ekotto has been re-instated and is playing well and it won't be long before Bale returns to the form of last year. In fact this is a far from poor squad and is playing more to its potential since Harry arrived than we were entitled to hope. Thursday is an opportunity to see what youngsters we have on the books with Bostock and Parrot rumoured to be in line for call ups.
If we had got 12 points rather than 2 from our first 8 games, not an over ambitious target, we would be one point below Arsenal. Playing mind games with Levy at the expense of backing his players is perhaps not what we expect of Harry. But his words were in the context of where we are now in the league and what our ambitions for the future are. I'm not sure that they applied to the January transfer window no matter how much the media would like it to or in fact will try to make it.
And so to Thursday against Spartak Moscow where all sorts of permutations of young or fringe players are possible. Whatever he might say I don't think Harry will want to miss out on another round of Uefa matches and although he wont risk Ledley he might have Lennon and Modric nicely placed on the bench in case. A one nil defeat would see us through, whatever happens between Udinese and NEC, but we should be alright to go through without too much difficulty by winning our own tie.
Oh and thank you Santa for the little extra Xmas present I asked for last week. It came on Saturday. I suppose the large size was out of stock but never mind I don't want to be greedy.