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From Palace to Europe (via the treatment table)

Well that game was shit wasn’t it? And by shit, I mean in the conventional sense, not like the young ‘uns these days might say “this is the shit” meaning it’s actually really good, I mean shit as in bloody terrible. Maybe I should have said shite, but I am conscious of appealing to a potentially international audience here.

Anyway, it’s thrown me a bit, losing to Palace like that. I have said consistently over recent weeks that this current season needs to be judged holistically, with the final few fixtures still crucial to what could be a very respectable finishing position.

I even said live on the air prior to the West Ham match that United should be aiming for 25 points from the remaining ten games. I got some funny looks from the assembled forum, although ten points from the next twelve available may have turned those frowns upside down a bit. After the Selhurst surrender though, we’d need to win all remaining games to hit that target.

My logic was sound, looking ahead to a reasonable set of fixtures and surely some reinforcements due back from the treatment room. However, a huge factor in my (misplaced?) optimism was the way games were spread out over the final furlong, with the punishing winter schedule of three games a week no longer the norm.

If you look back on that period towards the end of 2023, it pretty much sums up the filthy luck NUFC have had to deal with this season. That Champions League group gave absolutely no room for complacency against three of the world’s top sides, with the strongest side possible a necessity for all group games. This was exacerbated of course, by the horrendous league cup draws that kept coming up, meaning every one of the 29 games played before the new year needed maximum effort to keep up the challenge on all fronts. Once the injuries started to creep in it became a vicious circle, as those afflicted were forced to play while not quite right, or the ones needing to fill in with three shifts a week inevitably succumbed to ailments of their own. Of the entire first team squad I reckon only Schar, Gordon and Bruno have got through the season without missing a chunk of game time with some bloody malady.

Here’s a bit of a positive though. If we hit a European spot in the weeks ahead, next season will not be this bad. All due respect and things and stuff, but the types of teams you face in the Conference League, or even the Europa, will not be as daunting as the horrors of Group F (we now know what the F stood for…)

If past experience is anything to go by, both from an NUFC perspective and the recent adventures of English qualifiers for those competitions, a typical conference or Europa group will have one solid opponent in it that provides a stiff challenge (and brings an air of big European nights) one potentially middling opponent and a couple of teams you haven’t heard of, who can likely be beaten with an entirely different XI to whoever started the previous weekend’s league game. I have many memories of freezing nights at SJP in various Euro competitions against teams I can’t really remember watching early group stages get successfully navigated with a match or two to spare. The cold was felt more by the ground being around 3/4 full, so I hope Darren Eales gets his pricing right for this, as I’m not sure I trust him to realise that people won’t fancy £50 a throw for Brann Bergen or APOEL Nicosia on a Thursday night in the November rain.

Anyway, I digress. I make no apologies, my idol is Billy Connolly and sometimes you pick these traits up when you watch a lot of a person. Now, whit wis I talking aboot… Aye! Crystal Palace!

It was especially disappointing that the performance on Wednesday was so weak after United had a solid 11 days to prep for it. In this time Palace had to play twice, although their victory at Anfield and subsequent stuffing of West Ham obviously served as huge confidence boosters. I had full confidence in Eddie using this time to get the squad up for the challenge, so it was a sickener to hear him follow up the underwhelming display with the tired old line about availability. The return of Hall to full fitness and the ability to name Wilson on the bench meant this was overall a stronger side than the one that dealt so ruthlessly with Tottenham, so I’m not having that. I belief it was a misstep to name an unchanged side basically as a reward for doing well, as opposed to picking a team and structure to infiltrate the Palace.

I’ve always given Eddie the benefit of the doubt on this one. No matter what else we see, there’s no doubt that there has been an unprecedented injury situation this year. At the end of the season (assuming we perform over the coming 3 weeks) I would urge everyone to do this small test. Look at the gap between us and whoever comes fourth and imagine just one major injury didn’t happen. Would Nick Pope, Joelinton or Tonali be worth the difference between this and our final position. I’m hoping the answer will be yes, which prompts the thought that if we could have gotten Champions League if only our goalie had stayed fit, imagine what we could have done if all of these injuries (and daft suspensions) hadn’t happened?

This, coupled with the breathing space of a lesser competition mentioned above, would bode incredibly well for the season ahead. Hang onto our top players, add a handful of squad upgrades and cross everything that people stay fit and next season could be spectacular, especially against the backdrop of a post-Klopp Liverpool and near-certain upheaval at Man Utd potentially clearing the field a bit. European qualification would help a lot towards this, but both that short term goal and next term’s loftier ambitions rely on performances like the one endured this midweek being consigned to the past. Should we completed the expected double over Sheffield United this weekend I will travel to Turf Moor next time out with a tinge of worry that the Selhurst version of United show up, a feeling that won’t go away until this season is at an end and we can celebrate a glorious return to continental competition and hope for the year ahead.

Keep the faith, it won’t be long before you don’t have to think about this for a few months (and you’ll sharp get bored!)

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