While it's true that the UEFA Cup quarter-final is now the main focus for the season, that doesn't mean that we can afford to turn our attention away from the league. It's so tight that we could very easily finish anywhere from seventh through to seventeenth (or below). At the end of Saturday's 3pm kick offs, we are (with a game in hand) just six points behind West Ham in seventh, but only three points ahead of Stoke and Portsmouth.
So a win tomorrow puts us just three points away from Europa League qualification; a loss and we're in for a very uncomfortable run in. Both the opportunity of success and the danger of real failure mean that our league campaign cannot be relegated too far from our attention. Fortunately, we have what should be a rather predictable last nine league games. Five easily winnable home games: Sunderland, Fulham, WBA, Bolton, Blackburn, and four unwinnable away games: Arsenal, Everton, Manchester United and Spurs. (We could just get a point at White Lart Lane, but we probably won't.)
The important thing, then, is just to win these last five games. Our home form this year has been good - only United have more than our nine league wins - and recent wins against Aalborg and Aston Villa were as good team performances as we've produced this year. Can we do it again tomorrow? I hope so: Sunderland have won one of the last twelve league games, and that was at home against Stoke City. With Bozhinov and de Jong eligible to play we should still be able to put out a good side, even if none of the injury doubts play:
And this is a worst case scenario: Kompany and Bellamy could well make it, even if Bridge and Ireland are less likely to. (And for what it's worth, we've won our last three games against Sunderland. Our only away league win of this season was the 3-0 at the Stadium of Light, with goals from Ireland and two from Wright-Phillips. Four months before we won 2-1 (Elano and Vassell) and earlier that season Ireland score the only goal in a 1-0 home win.)
So we really should win. We do need to. And I'm going to predict Robinho's first goals of 2009 in a 2-0 win.