03 May 2014

Fourth place is in-hand. Send in the clowns!

Well, we've already qualified for the Champions League. Everton lost to title-chasing Man City on Saturday, rendering our match with West Brom all but moot. We don't have anything left to play for, at least as far as the Prem is concerned. There is still the tiniest glimmer of hope that we could overtake Chelsea, but this would require them losing to both Norwich and Cardiff. Even I, for as optimistic as I so often am, don't see that happening. So it goes. Nothing to do then, but to rest the regulars and send out whoever else is available. Viviano. Jenkinson. Sanogo. And so on.

I don’t think West Brom will make it easy for us to do that, though, as they have held us to two draws already—one in the league cup—at a time when we were otherwise playing quite on well. On top of this, they are still fighting to stave off relegation. With three matches left for them, they’re only four points above Norwich. Whereas we might look to the match with something of a blasé attitude, West Brom are looking scrappy, having won three and drawn two from their last ten, and are playing with a different spirit since Pepe Mel took over in January.

The form we’re in lately though suggests that there may be little that the Baggies can do to slow us. We’ve reeled off four consecutive wins, something we haven’t done since January, and rather than seeing the wounded stumble and fall, we’re looking to reinforcements arriving. The returns of Ramsey and Özil, of course, have added creativity and verve to a side that was looked jaded, weary, and bereft. Since their returns, we’ve bagged nine goals in three matches, all wins, and have scored inside the first half-hour in our last two. Elsewhere, Podolski has found the kind of form to make him Player of the Month for April, and we’re seeing the kind of flowing, attacking football that sent us to the top of the Prem for most of the season. Knowing that a win would sew up fourth place (if it hasn’t fallen in our laps already) should offer plenty of motivation, especially contrasted against the Baggies’ suspicion that their best chance for the points they need may lie elsewhere. 

However, our motivations may have changed just a bit. With fourth place secure and third all but conceded to Chelsea, I wouldn't be surprised to see a few players play sparingly if at all while others are rotated in. Squad-selection, then, might be more of a balancing act for fitness (if not World Cup concerns from the players) than for points. With that in mind, we could see a fair number of players emerge from the shadows, some whom we haven't seen in weeks, months, or at all. I wouldn't be surprised to see Jenkinson step in at right back, Vermaelen in at center, even Viviano in goal. I don't see a wholesale rotation, though, as we do need some continuity. Some players, such as Ramsey or Özil, might prefer to play a bit in order to work out a few kinks as they return from injury. I'm not suggesting that we field a rag-tag bunch of misfits and hope that they muddle through (although that's just what happened in the league-cup), but there's really only one prize left to play for at this point: the FA Cup. Without overlooking the likes of West Brom or Norwich, why risk injury to crucial players? Discretion is the better part of valor, I suppose but there's no shame in marshalling our resources now, is there?