Back to business
By Matt Rowson
Right. Time to stop pissing about.
Like me, you're probably still buzzing from Tuesday. Albeit buzzing in a listless, slightly irritable way that suggests a lack of sleep and the need of a weekend's worth of lie-ins to recover whilst rendering attempts at work rather unproductive, but buzzing nonetheless.
Whilst the cup ties have given us a lot of pleasure and success this season - and whilst I'm not convinced that our League form, on the whole, has been any poorer as a result of Cup progress - there's no avoiding the fact that our Division Two results over the past few months have been disappointing.
But it's probably worth remembering that our form hasn't been poor for quite as long as the results and accompanying statistics suggest; whilst the aberration at Gresty Road brought an end to what had seemed invincible form, the performances, Crewe aside, remained pretty strong until we started to wobble in mid-November. Even then, the away performance at Leeds was tremendous and only the level of West Ham's performance denied us at Upton Park.
In terms of getting our League form back on track, this game is perhaps not as critical as the one which follows the second leg against Liverpool - however that game turns out. That's, um, Gillingham at home, unfortunately. Nonetheless, this Saturday's game is an opportunity, for whilst Tuesday may leave a hangover in terms of fatigue and distraction, both it and the competent draw with Fulham can only have done good things to the side's confidence.
And with Crewe at home, we may have been dealt a conveniently timed fixture in several respects. If we're to build another run of form, we could do without fixtures against the sort of obdurate banks of four that have so frequently frustrated us this season. Whatever obstacles the Railwaymen present, bloody-minded defensive intent isn't one of them.
Crewe have also been weakened since the new year by two departures; the dependable Jon Otsemobor, who made his Alex debut against us in October, has returned to Anfield, whilst Dean Ashton this week moved to Norwich City for £3million. That's an increasingly rare sum of money to be paid for a player from beneath the Premiership, indicative of how highly the twenty-one year old, who already has seventy senior goals to his credit, is rated and also of how big a loss he will be to the Crewe side.
That Dario Gradi has no plans to charge out and spend money on a ready-made replacement should neither be a surprise nor taken to mean that Crewe will slip into terminal decline. It's not as if many of Crewe's big-money sales in the past have been followed by vast investment, and yet Alex have this season attained their highest ever league position.
Nonetheless, deprived of Ashton's increasingly dependable supply of goals and his prodigious ability to hold up the ball and give shape to Crewe's forward play and still reeling psychologically from the loss of a key man, the side will be on a low ebb.
Gradi used a 4-3-3 formation in collapsing at Coventry in the cup last weekend but the forwards involved were quite similar in style - quick and mobile, but not physically strong and all preferring a big man to play off. Steve Jones exploited our tired legs in October, but has been ill and is on a low ebb with only one goal in his last dozen games. Mark Rivers, who returned from Norwich this summer, has also scored a few but still attracts criticisms of laziness. Luke Varney is certainly a prospect, but is still raw.
Alex do have more conventional target men in their squad, but nobody who looks like stepping seamlessly into Ashton's boots. Andy White, at 6'4", certainly fits the category, but having been released by Mansfield in the summer and only scored once to date for Alex the locals still need convincing - he's very one footed, and does seem to spend a lot of time on his backside. Michael Higdon is another big man who can play up front, although he's only featured once in the last three months. One wonders if Gradi wishes he had held on to Allan Smart (this week's forthright programme interviewee, incidentally).
Midfield roles are at least a little better defined. Captain Kenny Lunt still pulls the strings and has a lot of creative responsibility. Alongside him, Lee Bell came into the side in December and is impressing during his first proper run with a combination of industry and a decent touch. Watercarrier Neil Sorvel still has his critics; the two goals he got against us are his only two in the last two seasons, whilst David Vaughan on the left, who had a fine game against us at Gresty Road, is a key man but increasingly criticised for dribbling himself into a hole. Other midfield options include the industrious Jason Cochrane, impressing less this season than last, and winger Ben Rix.
Crewe are short of numbers in defence, and reinforcement here seems to be a higher priority for Gradi than replacing Ashton. A thigh strain that will keep Billy Jones out won't be helping - the seventeen year old suffocated Danny Webber at Gresty Road. Stephen Foster and Richard Walker, whose confidence seems to be quite brittle, should take the central positions with former Barnsley and Huddersfield stopper Adie Moses playing out of position at right back. Anthony Tonkin picked up a hamstring injury prior to the cup game at Coventry and is doubtful - if missing, left back will either go to the now legendary Chris McCready or to David Vaughan dropping back from midfield. Clayton Ince should play in goal having displaced disappointing summer recruit Ben Williams at the start of November.
Our home record against Crewe is impressive; we've won ten of our thirteen meetings at Vicarage Road, scoring an average of well over two goals per game in the process. Crewe are no mugs - even in this division, you don't get into the top half through luck - but it's a game that can and must yield three points.
Bring it on.