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GILES SMITH’S THURSDAY THOUGHTS

Season ticket holder and columnist Giles Smith casts his fan’s-eye view on a balancing of books in recent games and a month with plenty of familiar opponents…

Try and imagine a situation in which, in an outcome predicted by absolutely nobody (and let’s face it, not even an infinite amount of chimps, given an infinite amount of time with an infinite amount of typewriters, would have been across this one), your team had conceded four goals in the second half in a midweek game at Bournemouth and you had limped away afterwards having seen your club sink to its worst league defeat in 23 years.

I know: it’s hard to imagine it, especially for fans of a club like ours. But just see if you can.

Now, in the wake of such a monumentally withering setback (unprecedented, it goes without saying, in many of our supporters’ lifetimes), what would be the optimum outcome you could hope for in the very next game, just three days later, at home, say, to Huddersfield?

What, when you thought about it, would be the outcome among all other possible outcomes that would maximally reassure you that the world was still more or less the right way up and that that 4-0 defeat to Bournemouth could potentially be written off as nothing more than a small and ultimately negligible tear in the space-time continuum, and something we may even eventually come to see the funny side of at some stage, though let’s not get carried away?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I would suggest that, in those particular circumstances, there would be an awful lot to be said for a 5-0 victory in that immediately ensuing game. 5-0 against Huddersfield, right after 4-0 against Bournemouth, goes a long way towards mending a few things. It brings some relief, of course. But it also does more than that. It returns momentum, not just steadying the ship but setting it sailing again. And being 5-0, it’s not just a bounce-back, but a bounce-back plus, ensuring that you run out 5-4 winners on aggregate over the two legs.
 

Accordingly it renews your faith in both the team and science. In an ideal world, 5-0 at home to Huddersfield is the rule, and 4-0 away to Bournemouth is the exception that proves that rule.

And it gets even better, of course, if 5-0 against Huddersfield includes two goals from your recently acquired on-loan striker, the first involving the kind of predatory quick-wittedness from an unpromising angle close to goal that we haven’t seen enough of in recent months, the second constituting an absolute fireball from a number of miles out at the Matthew Harding end that could well have caused structural damage to the stadium if the net hadn’t got in the way. Really we’ll take any goals from Gonzalo Higuain at this point, but if some of them are going to be goal of the season contenders, then that’s fine also.

The broader point is that, with someone capable of delivering a bit of snap from the centre-forward position, we become perhaps crucially less dependent on goals scored with exquisite curling shots from the corners of the penalty area after 17-pass build-ups – which is, of course, beautiful in its own way, but can be a low-percentage game which has afflicted us somewhat of late.

Now we head forward into a month which has an unusual amount of Manchester in it. On Sunday we’re away to Manchester City, who seemed until quite recently to have forgotten the prime reason they exist (namely, to prevent Liverpool getting anyway near the title in the years that we can’t do so ourselves) but who appeared latterly, against Arsenal and Everton, to have discovered it again. Meanwhile Liverpool are showing one or two promising signs of slowing up all on their own, even before the Champions League returns, so it can’t hurt us to try and take some points off City again, as we did, unforgettably, before Christmas at Stamford Bridge.
 

A week later, in the FA Cup, we’re at home to Manchester United who seem unfortunately to have somewhat shaken off the reputation they so handsomely earned in the first part of the season as a side you could safely ignore in the competition for top-four places and now appear to be winning games – although not against Burnley at home and only by the skin of their teeth at Leicester. Anyway, we have a long and proud history of defeating Manchester United in the FA Cup, including last year in the final, so let’s draw on that.

And then, of course, it’s City again at Wembley in the Carabao Cup final. It’s interesting that this supposedly ‘low priority’ competition has come down to a final featuring two of the top four clubs in the country, and that we had to beat another one of those top four clubs to get there. Maybe it’s not such a ‘low priority’ after all. I certainly don’t believe anyone around here thought so, or thinks so now.

So, too much Manchester for one month? I don’t know. If things pan out, and 5-0 against Huddersfield turns out to be a kind of prototype, we could go into March thinking it was exactly the right amount.
 

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