Norwich City travel to our NE1 on Wednesday to face United in the divisions biggest game of the season so far. The late leveller for Villa was a sickening blow but only because we should have comfortably won a game we dominated bar the last 10 minutes. That we can go to the divisions biggest spenders and should have comfortably beaten them, is only a huge positive, nothing else. It felt like a defeat, but it wasn’t – it was a good result pre-kick off and another superb response to the defeat against Wolves. I’ve often talked about the ‘difficult’ run in these match previews and that run is at an end from Wednesday. Facing a supposedly difficult run games United have come out with 10 points from 5 so far. Two points a game gets you promoted. Even 11 points from these 6 fixtures represents a superb return. Even if United were to lose, which would be a blow, 10 points from 6 games including Derby, Norwich, Villa and Brighton – is good going. Not that I think we’ll lose.
I suppose it’s obligatory to talk about Matt Sels. Taking himself off social media was a low point for the fan base this season (Ed: or any season). I don’t think he should play this game. I don’t think he’s shit, or not good enough. I don’t want him dropped really – I was just really impressed by Karl Darlow’s performance against Wolves. He made two saves I don’t think Sels would have by coming from his line and being in the position to make a great save. Sels’ performances this season against Bristol, Wolves and Villa have been very poor. In the other games, he’s looked good. You can have something of a balanced opinion these days, yet many seem to think that violently taking one position or the other is the only way to go. I’m not a goal keeping coach or anyone who knows anything about goal keeping. If Sels starts it’ll be the right decision. If he doesn’t, it’ll be the right decision. That’s because it’ll be Rafa Benitez making the decision and he knows what is best. I can only call it as I see it – but in the knowledge that if Rafa disagrees with me, then I’m in the wrong. If Sels starts I’ll sing his name. Many others should.
Some inside knowledge on Rafa and Sels (if this was the Chronicle the headline to this piece wouldn’t read ‘Match Preview’ but ‘What does Rafa think of Sels, answer is here PLEASE CLICK’). As most of you are aware, I was fortunate enough to be invited to spend hours with Rafa after the defeat to Huddersfield. We talked about everything we could. He was honest and straight up with every question. ‘Best player you’ve managed against?’ ‘How will Klopp’s Liverpool do this season?’ ‘Most gifted player you’ve worked with?’ – all answered honestly and with so much detail and explanation it makes you realise why you’re a fan writing for fanzines and not managing Valencia, Real Madrid and others (The original Ronaldo, Very Well and Steven Gerrard – if you’re wondering). I asked him why he was playing Sels ahead of Darlow – as I didn’t rate Sels from what I’d seen and thought he made the defence look nervous. He answered, as ever, honestly and with some passion.
To begin with Matt Sels was the Belgian League’s best goal keeper last season at 23. He’d played Champions League football and he WANTED to join United. That’s a big deal to Rafa. He wants to be here. In The Championship. He had offers in the Premier League. In addition Sels was recommended to Rafa by a former player of his whom he trusted implicitly. I mentioned that against Huddersfield and Fulham Sels was guilty of bad positioning on the goals and constantly coming for the ball and then stopping causing chaos at the back. Rafa’s answer to that was to ask me about Sels’ distribution (If you asked Rafa a question, he often used a question to make you realise how wrong you are). I answered that I didn’t know, I hadn’t really noticed. That’s a good thing. Rafa made the excellent point that a goal keeper may come from his line as little as twice a game to claim a ball. Sometimes more. He could have to kick or distribute the ball 20 times + in a game, so in Rafa’s mind – one was more important than the other, much more important. To give Sels some credit – his kicking is good. Darlow’s kicking is poor. It’s his worst attribute. The much lauded Rob Elliot can barely get the ball over the half way line.
Back to Norwich at home though. Tough, tough game. It reminds me of Brighton, who roared into NE1 unbeaten and left with tails firmly between legs. We have the ability to win this game comfortably. Norwich lie top of the table and 4 points ahead of us. Seven points is some gap, though I’m still confident of catching them should it come to that. They’re playing us at the best possible time for them. However they haven’t kept a clean sheet in 6 games however and United are very capable of keeping a clean sheet. They’ve won their last 4 in this league after an away hiding at Birmingham. Alex Neil came to SJP last season and tried to dominate the game. That suited McClaren’s hapless United fine, as the only thing they were any good at was counter attacking. It was madness from the Norwich manager. I’ve no idea if he’ll tighten up, but he has to if he wants to win the game. Reading and Brighton came to SJP, tried to take the game to us and were soundly beaten. Wolves and Huddersfield got 10 behind the ball, broke in numbers when they got the rare chance to and frustrated us. With United I feel the first goal is crucial, so I’m hoping we start like we did against Brighton, and not Wolves.
Team selection? Who knows. It’ll be interesting to see if Clark keeps his place after a superb performance on Saturday. Mbemba being dropped after some great performances this season (though not v Wolves) tells you how good we have at the back. I really hope Yedlin recovers because he was excellent and because for this game at least, there’s no one else. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the two who cost us badly with their misses at Villa given the chance to turn that a
round. I really hope Murphy gets in the squad ahead of Mitrovic. Colback looked good against Derby and Wolves (cup) recently so I wouldn’t mind seeing him alongside Shlevey.
I hope I’m at a positive St James’ Park this Wednesday. If we lose two nil again – please don’t embarrass yourself by standing in your seat and screaming at a player on your own team for kicking the ball out of play when he didn’t mean to. It’s pathetic. It looks like a sub 50k crowd, like against Brighton and Reading. Both games were played out in a positive atmosphere in the stands and the team flourished as a result.
I think we’ll win because we’re a good side. Even if we don’t win, our next ten games are against none of the top 6 and we play ten of the bottom 12 before New Year, in our next 14 games. Points to be had, whatever happens on Wednesday.
ALEX HURST – Follow Alex on @tfalex1892
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