So, this is what basking in the glory of victory feels like, then? Not having to worry about the teams below you, thinking about how many places we can go up the league rather than the relegation zone and positively looking forward to our next game instead of dreading the weekend.
The win over Reading was certainly timely, but it was hardly a polished performance. Once again we sacrificed a lead all too easily – it can’t simply be nerves that see the defence move backwards quicker than a retreating French army. Antti Niemi seems as though he’s been superglued to his goal line and looks more shaky on crosses than the much-maligned Paul Robinson (although if he keeps making some of those saves, he’ll be cut plenty of slack). And although we’re scoring plenty of goals, Diomansy Kamara seems to be distinctly unimpressive. He contributed little, appeared greedy and was lucky to stay on the pitch for 67 minutes. Much more of this and I could be agreeing with that mouthy TalkSPORT commentator who reckoned West Brom were laughing all the way to the bank after pocketing the £6m.
A better side than Reading (and there are few other English managers I rate higher than Steve Coppell, by the way) would have buried us under the weight of their second half pressure. And the bad news is we’re playing a better side than Reading on Saturday. We took a pummelling the last time we went to Anfield and after their record dispatching of Beskitas on Tuesday, they’ll be more than ready to dole out another. I’m warming to Hughes and Stefanovic in the centre, but they will have some job trying to keep a clean sheet – whoever the unpredictable Rafa Benitez picks. Our lightweight midfield, minus the missing Alexei Smertin (which, given his form earlier in the season, is a real puzzle) certainly won’t be equipped to just park the bus in Liverpool.
There were positives to come from the victory. Simon Davies turned in another exceptional performance and capped it with a splendid goal, just as he did at Sunderland. He’s the sort of player who rarely gets the recognition he deserves. When he signed from Everton plenty thought they knew exactly who they were getting (another of Cookie’s mates, a solid but unspectacular player who’d be Radzinski’s doppleganger on the other side of the pitch), but he’s proving plenty of people wrong. Not blessed with any great pace, he makes up for that with a sound footballing brain and a seemingly unstoppable shot.
Then there’s the emergence of two genuine prospects at full-back. Elliot Omozusi has been regarded as a potential star for a few years now and distinguished himself at Leicester in the FA Cup last year and at Sunderland last week, bar last-minute hiccups on both occassions. He turned in a solid performance this time too and, in his defence, this last-minute expulsion was far from his fault. In a game where diving and cheating seems depressingly commonplace, credit to both James Harper and Nicky Shorey – the former looked genuinely affronted as he remonstrated with Mark Clattenburg, whilst the England left-back just looked shocked. Hopefully, Lawrie Sanchez has seen enough to be persuaded that we all should see more of Junior.
Nathan Ashton had an impressive game on his debut at left-back. He was another of the Sanchez summer signings who was derided. The keyboard warrirors reckoned that if he wasn’t good enough for relegated Charlton, then he’d hardly grow into an adequate replacement for Franck Quedrue or Niclas Jensen. Perhaps they were conveniently forgetting that we’ve never properly replaced Rufus Brevett – another initially unpopular signing from an underachieving London club. Ashton, with plenty of England U19 caps to his name, looked promising at left-back and, in part, our success was due to the fact that both full-backs seemed happy to cross the halfway line and provide to the wingers (perhaps that’s something Baird and even the impressive Konchesky could take on board).
By far the biggest plus, however, was the arrival of Sheffi Kuqi. Even the Palace fans laughed when they heard we’d signed him on loan, having thanked me for taking him off their hands that is. You can certainly see why they found the idea of Kuqi gracing the Premiership amusing. He’s slow, overweight and something doesn’t quite seem right about the ball being at his feet. And yet he doesn’t have too bad a top-flight strike rate. Reading were definitely scared of the big fella when he made his entrance on Saturday and it was his nuisance-making that prompted Clint Dempsey’s crucial tap-in.
With David Healy’s late third, Sanchez certainly has a decision to make about the composition of the side against Liverpool. Judging by Moritz Volz’s latest diary entry, it doesn’t seem like he will be fit in time to face the Reds. The more pressing problem seems to be how to set up the side and the gameplan. Do we sit back and wait for Liverpool to break us down? Do we start with Kuqi or bring him/Healy on after an hour? The latter plan assumes that we are in the game at that point. I’d be tempted to stick Kuqi up there and hope he can cause his Finnish international colleague (Sami Hyypia) some real problems.
Whatever Sanchez decides to, it’s certainly better to be feeling a little more upbeat this week. Nick is off to the game on Saturday whereas I’ll only be watching on TV – so you know who’ll give you the more entertaining report.