Just another day at the office yesterday against Middlesbrough. Without ever getting out of third gear we picked up three points thanks to two Cesc Fàbregas goals. Another excellent display from Andrey Arshavin. We’ll miss his spark at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
With the Hammers unable to do us a favour against Chelsea on Saturday, we still trail the latter by six points in fourth place with four games to go, albeit one of them at home to them. Even if we win that I think we’re going to need maximum points from our other three remaining League games. This would mean winning away at Fratton Park, who are still not clear of the drop, and at Old Trafford and at home to Stoke City. Even then we’d need Chelsea to draw one of their other remaining three games home to Fulham and Blackburn Rovers and away to Sunderland on the final day. A very, very big ask I think, but third place must still be our goal.
The good news is that with Aston Villa only managing a draw at the Reebok.  With Everton’s surprise loss at home to Manchester Citeh, it will take a collapse of epic proportions for us to lose out on fourth spot now. One more win will definitely nail down fourth. That said, if the Cottagers can scrape a draw at the Bridge next weekend and we can beat Pompey on the south coast then its game on for third again. This would convert our home game against Chelsea into a REAL six pointer.
All that needs to be put to one side until Thursday morning now. Total, total focus is required for the visit to Old Trafford on Wednesday night. Even yesterday, our defending against a poor Middlesbrough side lacking in all self-belief wasn’t good. Manuel Almunia had to make two sharp saves to keep them out.
Mikaël Silvestre is very doubtful for Wednesday night with a back spasm, having been withdrawn at half time yesterday. The injury gremlins really won’t leave us alone, will they? I’m starting to think we need some kind of exorcism!
That aside, I was slightly surprised that Bacary Sagna didn’t get at least half an hour against the Smoggies. He looked well off the pace against Liverpool last Tuesday. Not surprising if he has suffered the same lurgy I had a couple of weeks ago. Horrible. I’ll repeat what I said before the horrible performance against Chelsea at Wembley. Given our frailties at the back at the moment, I think we should be looking to press the ball and the opposition as high up the park as possible against United whenever we don’t have possession. I know that this tactic can make a team vulnerable to the quick counter-attack and is very taxing physically. I just don’t think we can’t afford to let United come on to us. There’s no risk-free strategy against a team that, much as I detest them, are fluent going forward and have goal threats all over the park.
We lost out to Liverpool last season in the Champions League quarter finals by a combination of poor defending and losing concentration and focus after Theo Walcott’s thrilling run and Emmanuel Adebayor’s finish to tie it up at 3-3 and put our noses in front on away goals. You can argue about some of the refereeing decisions in both games, but I thought we were the authors of our own downfall in the last analysis. We simply can’t afford the same mistakes again.
Off the park Ivan Gazidis continues to make his mark as chief executive officer. Having taken three months to “bat himself on” he’s decided the top management ranks in the club’s administration needs beefing up. Three new senior jobs at Highbury House were advertised in the Sunday Times yesterday to head up legal services, business development and human resources. Good. I’ve thought for some time that the club is light at senior management level off the park. These jobs won’t come cheap. Together they’ll add around half a million pounds to the payroll including salaries, pensions and the normal executive bells and whistles. A lot of money, but it’s a good time to recruit with so much executive talent around at the moment due to the recession and we’ve lacked firm direction at the top. We need to be world class off the park too to ensure success on the park.
On a wider issue, yesterday’s papers were full of stories about the proposed Premier League 2. If you haven’t kept up with this, Phil Gartside of Bolton Wanderers, supported by others, is pressing a plan to create a second division of the Premier League with both the top tier and the new second flight being reduced to eighteen teams. The other part of the plan is a course we’ve been round a few times – bringing the Scottish “Old Firm” of Rangers and Celtic into the new set up. To them would be added fourteen other English/Welsh teams. These would be “selected” by a set of criteria which would include grounds and finances.
The move of the Old Firm to play in another national league would require the consent of both national associations and FIFA. It would also require the untangling of a number of broadcasting contracts for the Premier League, Football League and Scottish Premier League. There are other unanswered questions too, such as would the Old Firm continue to play in the Scottish domestic cup competitions, the English cups or both?
I for one think this is yet another plot by the wanabees. I was always opposed to the creation of the Premier League. It simply sucked all the money up to the top, to the detriment of competitive balance. I have always been in favour of reducing the size of the top flight to eighteen or even sixteen teams. It’s the players in the top flight who by and large have the heaviest demands on them. Their clubs go further in the domestic and European cup competitions and have the most players selected for  their respective national teams. Reducing the top flight to eighteen or even sixteen teams and reducing promotion and relegation from two to three would allow the domestic Cup competitions to “breath”,  allow for a short winter break and reduce the total number of games played by most top players. It might mean player salaries would have to come down a bit but none are going to starve by having to get by on £40k a week rather than £50k. I’d absolutely love to see at least one replay re-introduced in the FA Cup at the semi-final and final stages and a second replay on neutral ground from the first to sixth rounds. Multiple replays were a great historic feature of the FA Cup. With the top flight reduced to eighteen teams they become conceivable again.
That’s a credible plan worth discussing. I think so at least. Premier League 2 is pants. I hope the clubs boot it firmly into touch at their meeting on 4-5 June.
Memo to Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore.
Oi! Richard! No!
Keep the faith!

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