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From The Stands

14 April 2016

By Simon Mills
It’s amazing the difference a week makes, just when everyone was shifting uncomfortably in their seats and worried over such a long winless run, two games and four points later, even the most pessimistic are struggling to contemplate relegation and we’re on a run of three unbeaten!
Last night we continued a fine record against a top club, having lost just once in six encounters with the Toffees since our return to the top flight. Everton may not be on the greatest run themselves, but when you see the wealth of talent on show (Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley and John Stones to name a few), you should never assume anything against the blues from Merseyside.
Fortune certainly is starting to favour us once again, another red card issued to opposition and now it’s us that the woodwork is assisting. The difference those kind of decisions or almost moments make are palpable, I am a firm believer that you make your own luck and our upturn in form is the biggest reason these ‘lucky’ moments are now on our side.
In these games there have been stand out performances in the team or at the least some much improved showings and the timing couldn’t have been better.
Since returning from injury, Jason Puncheon has stood out and really begun to deliver the kind of stand out displays that had many clambering for an inclusion in the England squad at the start of the season. Pape Soure has also perked up in recent weeks and that is a very welcome sight.
I’d also like to mention Wayne Hennessey – who for me has bore the brunt of the supporters’ frustrations and become somewhat of a scapegoat. I was extremely disappointed with some fans’ attitudes in the game against Norwich, goalkeepers can be heavily influenced by confidence and when some ‘supporters’ are doing the opposite, that is not going to help in the slightest. It was no surprise for me when he improved in the second half of that game and his display against Everton demonstrated what a fine keeper he is.
Naturally, our attention will shift somewhat to that enormous cup game a week on Sunday, given that our Premier League status seems almost guaranteed. The focus in our next couple of games, (against such difficult opponents) will likely start to move towards preparing for our game against Watford – regardless of how some fans may feel about that.
Finding the right balance between fielding a strong and competitive team, while adequately resting/preparing players for what will be one of the biggest games for the club in the last 26 years, will be a challenge. Do we field our best team against Arsenal and a reserve outfit against United? Or balance a half and half team in each fixture, rotating our first 11 between the two games? Of course, we could do neither, though I think we would all be surprised if we don’t see selection with the semi-final in mind.
Having as much of our squad available, for the first time in months, will be a boost. With Alan Pardew revealing that James McArthur is now back in full training and could feature against United next week, the timing could be vital. 
We have no doubt missed McArthur, his energy and work rate is second to none – but given his injury lay off and his style of play, we shouldn’t expect too much too soon. Even with minutes at Old Trafford, no one should expect him to be back to his best straight away and I certainly can’t imagine he will be ready to give us much more than a cameo in that game at Wembley. We will just have to use him as more of a key player in the final!
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