Not so great expectations

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It’s been a long three weeks since I last wrote, I promise that I’ve not been hanging on until I can legitimately use a “preparing for the festive period”  excuse for my posting pattern, but sometimes things don’t change that much no matter how long you wait.  Three weeks ago it was 14 points from 14 games and third from bottom in the league, after Saturday it’s 16 from 17 and third from bottom.  Teams below us have got a little closer, but mid table is still much closer than ‘on the horizon’, basically it’s “as you were”.  Latics have problems to solve, but so do many other teams and it seems that it’s a case of the team that gets to its solution first will be the one that steadily pulls away from the muck.

Whilst there may not have been any conclusive signs that the team will be Latics, I’m not having the argument that we’re slowly being dragged into the mire by bad results and terrible performances.  Look at the fixtures again and give it more thought.  You don’t need to be a Latics’ historian to know that West Ham, Stoke and Everton have never been the happiest of fixtures for our boys and the weight of fan’s expectations can do very little to change that.  I’m not saying that things have been perfect, mind, but the bottom line is that, since the United game, Latics have had three fixtures which would have been deemed difficult under any circumstances, let alone with the problems we’ve had recently.

West Ham may not have been pulling up trees this season, but the club knew what they were doing in labelling the game against a team that have never done particularly well in the East End as a chance to “Save our Season”, that extra bit of emphasis, added to the return of Scott Parker and a bit of defensive organisation courtesy of Wally Downes was enough for them to do a job on Latics, prevent them dominating the game and get their noses in front.  Less of a bad performance from the visitors and more a job done for the first hour for the host.

After that of course, Latics only have themselves to blame for confirming the defeat.  A missed penalty (that you would have had more confidence in Carlton Cole scoring for us to be honest) and over stretching to get back into the game meant that Cleverley’s goal and Gohouri’s disallowed effort ultimately mattered for nothing.  Still whilst the manner of the defeat was a little galling, the bottom line is that it would have been a real achievement to come away from Upton Park with anything else.

Whilst anything you get from away games is a bonus you really need to be looking to win your home games (© lazy pundits guide to soccer 2004).  That said, history suggest that not beating Stoke is at least three times more likely than Latics taking the three points (with five wins from 23 fixtures).  Basically , with lingering doubts about our ability to defend against Stoke’s tour de force, crosses and set pieces,  we could expect long john weather and long throws but we probably shouldn’t be expecting a win.

As it happens, it was a fairly bizarre game.  A first half devoid of any real quality but with four goals and a second which Latics played some decent stuff and mostly dominated proceedings, where either side could have (probably deservedly) snatched a win.  In all it was a good performance, Latics responding well to a couple of set-backs before taking the game to their opponents.  The final say belonging to both keepers with Begovic’s double save against Boselli and Al Habsi’s ‘Banks-esque’ stop from Jones keeping their sides level.

As far as Latics are concerned, Al Habsi’s decision to skip the Gulf Cup in favour of our travails was an excellent one, the Omani has been in great shot stopping form in recent weeks, on the other hand he must have been wondering whether he might have had a few quieter weeks in the midst of an international tournament.  No more so than against Everton, where you will no doubt be aware that the toffees had 364 chances on goal to Latics’ 0.538.  The keeper wasn’t the only star of what ended up being a gritty draw, with pretty much everyone getting in the way of something at one time or another.

Goodison, is another unhappy hunting ground for Latics, and no matter how difficult the day at the office might have been, a draw is worth a celebratory pint afterwards.  Of course Latics may well have smashed and grabbed a win but I’m not having that affect what we should see as a good point.  A hard earned point as well and one that we might pay the cost for over coming weeks.

Whilst there have been debates all season about player sections, the back drop to the last three weeks has been those players that haven’t been available to Bobby.  Boyce, Caldwell and  McCarthy were already missing before the United game, which deprived us of Rodallega for three games and Alcaraz for one.  Since then we’ve lost Di Santo to his mystery ankle complaint and Moses to a dislocated shoulder so the last thing you’d want from the Everton game would be more injuries and suspensions.

Cue five bookings for Thomas (who did most of the ‘hard’ winning on Saturday and Figueroa, who most certainly haven’t got on a pre-Christmas chartered flight to Honduras with Winston Palacios (who limped out of Spurs’ game against Chelsea) and a cracked rib for the ‘likely to be returning to Manchester United in January’ Tom Cleverley.  So we head into our latest most important stage of the season with over a third of our registered squad unavailable or doubtful.

It’s great when you’re trying to be postitive about some middling results and you’ve got an injury and suspension crisis to fall back on.  But we need to be wary, Latics may have been managing results that are about par for the course and our current position may still over emphasise the opening day defeat it would be wrong to ignore the advantage of getting ahead of the game at some point.  After all last season’s survival was based as must on unexpected results than ‘everyday’ ones.

Whilst it’s ok to say we might have done better recently if we been able to field stronger teams over the last three weeks it’s not that much of a stretch to see that turning into “we wouldn’t have gone down if it hadn’t been for injuries”.

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