By Matt Rowson
The issue of the number of games played by professional footballers in this country is one that pointlessly rears its head whenever the nation is looking for something to excuse the fact that England have disgracefully struck par again by going out at the Quarter-Finals of whichever international tournament. In any list of pathetic witterings that get on my wick, this has to rate pretty highly. It's not as if footballers aren't paid to play football for one thing, or as if any number of representatives of more successful nations aren't operating in the Premiership.
More aggravating still when the source of the complaints is one of the G14 on whose behest the Champions' (sic) League mutated into its current grotesque form. But even Chelsea have played fewer games this season than we have, for example, and whilst their standard is obviously higher, Chelsea have a far larger squad... and I'm not sure that another stroll against whichever hapless Premiership opponents is any tougher on them physically than Burnley away will be in a couple of weeks. Norwich meanwhile, having made swift exits from both domestic cups, have played thirty-two games up to this weekend, some fourteen fewer than ourselves.
The relevance of the fixture load question comes into focus this week with Leicester City's protests at their run of three games in six days, of which Tuesday's will be the second. The Foxes' application to have Tuesday's match postponed was as pitiful as it was baffling. Pitiful in the apparent belief that cup progress and the consequent compressing of games due to television scheduling - no more games than come at you during a Christmas period, and prior to a fortnight's break - should somehow justify a rescheduling to something more convenient. Baffling in that given the unprecedented appeal's negligible chance of success - what price a precedent for rearranging games during an injury crisis or a bad run of form - the most likely consequence was always the fostering of a victim mentality that's the last thing Leicester need at the moment. (Hilarious) images of Trevor Francis throwing a king-size wobbly before a doomed penalty shootout at Deepdale spring to mind.
Leicester currently lie four places and two points below us in the table, a disappointing return on what must have been loftier ambitions than our own in August. Those games in hand aren't a lot of use either unless the side finds some goals from somewhere... they've failed to score in their last four games, and are without a League victory in six.
Craig Levein has intimated that, given the impossible pressures being placed on his poor dears, he'll be shaking his team up tomorrow night and giving some of his older heads a rest. The Foxes fielded a 4-5-1 at Blackburn on Saturday, but 4-4-2 has been more typical in League fixtures.
If scoring goals is a problem, keeping them out at the other end has been less so; outside the top two, only the constipated Stoke and Burnley have shipped fewer. Watford-born son of a former Hornets keeper Ian Walker has been back between the sticks since mid-January having previously been missing since August. Canadian Lars Hirschfeld, who has made nine starts for a range of clubs during his three years in the UK, will be on the bench.
At the back, defensive ranks have been strengthened with a couple of recent signings. Darren Kenton tended to impress against us with Norwich but has failed to establish himself at Southampton and has arrived on loan. Alan Maybury, one of two players signed by Craig Levein from his old club Hearts, is beginning to win friends; more frequently a right-back, he played on the left during the cup game. Jordan Stewart is another option on the left hand side - it's been noted that Leicester's left hand side lacks pace when he's missing. Chris Makin is on loan at neighbours Derby.
In the centre, Nikos Dabizas and Dion Dublin would appear to be to be two candidates for rotation given their age and the number of apparent alternatives in the squad but Martin Keown, ripped to bits by Danny Webber in August, has been put out to pasture at Reading. Candidates for a start in the centre are Irishman Patrick McCarthy, a recent £100k signing from Manchester City, youngster Richard Stearman and 6'4" Matt Heath.
In midfield, Gareth Williams is apparently coming into form and overcoming the obstacle of having been signed from Forest to win over the support. Stephen Hughes - not that one - is another central option favoured on messageboards, but his style is thought too similar to Williams for them to flourish together in a four-man midfield. The abrasive Joey Gudjonsson is the likeliest ballwinner, whilst other options include flaky Frenchman Lilian Nalis, still "struggling with the pace" of English football, and veteran Scot Gemmill. On the flanks, Keith Gillespie wisps in and out of games, doing the old Worrell Sterling trick of doing just enough to avoid getting dropped. On the left, Danny Tiatto provides much effort but little thought. Injuries have hit the Foxes here, with Jason Wilcox (cruciate ligament) and Lee Morris (permanently injured) both absentees.
Up front, the other arrival from Tynecastle Mark de Vries has universally failed to impress with some lumbering performances, no goals and a degree of whining every time he gets a knock. "Trevor Benjamin without pace" is one merciless assessment. There's also David Connolly, still much beloved of the Hornet faithful and with little to prove at this level if his indolent performances for City are any evidence. Connolly picked up his fifth booking of the season a week ago, eight days after this ceased to provoke a one-match ban that would have ruled him out on Tuesday night. The lightweight Stefan Moore may get a run - on loan from Villa until the end of the season with a view to a permanent move, he completely failed to impress in forty-five minutes against us at the New Den earlier in the season. The rather more than lightweight Nathan Blake may also feature having recovered from injury whilst twenty year old Tommy Wright has also had a couple of run-outs recently. James Scowcroft's considerable bulk and yet more considerable wages are temporarily offloaded at Portman Road.
Both Watford and Leicester, whatever the two sides' limitations and recent woes, have squads plenty good enough to remain in this division. Whilst Leicester's nine away draws and our eight stalemates at home may suggest one outcome, a win for either side on Tuesday evening would go a long way towards guaranteeing survival.