91 and never again.
Hey, at least we can now focus on the league. AMIRITE?
Cup football these-days is pretty much like 20/20 cricket. It's not quite the real thing. It always feels like you're getting a version of the main product that lacks the refined quality of the original but at the same time can still be fairly enthralling, occasionally. Having said that, I've only just realised that a win would have pushed us into the quarter-finals. The quarter-f*cking-finals! The stage where you can start to weigh up the chances of reaching Wembley.
This game was the perfect example of openish football with moments of high drama (the handball on the line, the Palace claim for a pen) and plenty of goalmouth oohs. Basically, cup football, where really really good defending is half-forgotten. Where one team was more dominant on the ball than the other, at least early on. It wasn't end to end, more stop-start thanks to the bitey nature of the opposition.
Only one goal settled it, just before half-time. It was akin to threatening to beat up some drunk outside a nightclub, exchanging words, having him on the backfoot with your fronting and then getting blind-sided and slapped in the face by his mate. To be fair, there were signs they might have the audacity to attempt it. And they did.
Alan Pardew was finally able to sport a smug face post-match whilst we get knocked out of a competition that still had some momentum to offer us. I'm not going anywhere near the 'loss is better than a replay' discussion.
We let it slip away, not because of any criminal neglect in terms of selection or tactics. We simply didn't land a telling punch (woodwork aside). Lucked out for the fourth time this season. The defeat in the League Cup remains the only game we threw away, the only one where I felt we got it completely wrong with line-up and tempo. I wonder how much stronger we'll be midweek in the Europa Cup? Two defeats in a row? At Tottenham Hotspur? That's just not cricket.
Did we learn much?
Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb look and play like back up midfielders. Both have endured injuries this season and the lack of rotation and appearances means the only chance they'll get to reclaim form is if one of our first teamers is out of action for weeks. The caveat to this scenario is that in the appearances they've had, Nabil especially has often been untidy and off the pace. It's not just about lacking sharpness, there's also that requirement to sync in with your team-mates and match their levels of application - on and off the ball.
This is a player (Nabil) I rate highly and was my pick to be the one to shine bright this season. Instead, he looks like he's suffering for being on the sidelines for a prolonged period and seeing others make a name for themselves in his absence. An air of apologetic moodiness, a sense of him feeling a little too sorry for himself.
Did any of us expect Eric Dier and Dele Alli to excel to the levels they've reached? No. So it's unlikely Nabil did either. It's a test of his character where failure will surely point to the door.
The caveat also covers off the fact that others in the squad have also been on the fringe but have instantly impressed when called upon. I'm not scapegoating by the way. I just don't think there's too much to discuss post-game.
Once again destiny says no when it comes to this cup and not being in the next round hurts more than any given individual or team performance. You sometimes have to find a way to win. Palace did. We didn't.
We haven't lost for ages and the feeling seems strange, like it doesn't quite fit into my footballing schedule. It's the closest good feeling I can muster up from the depths of this result.
We lose a game, we bounce back instantly. That's a trademark of this campaign, underlining our consistency. This part of the congested fixture list is where we expected to be tested in terms of fitness and avoidance of fatigue. It would be easy to knee-jerk but best we wait until after the next two games to understand how much mettle and strength of lungs we still possess.
Regardless of any debates around a weakened centre-pairing in midfield, we still had plenty of the ball. We still had some heavyweight contenders in the team and off the bench. It's just not a strong enough excuse to focus on. The team, on paper, was good enough to compete and beat the visitors. Had Palace not got the late goal (that came at the end of a fairly decent half for us), the second forty-five would have retained its openness. The fifteen minute break killed our buzz. It is what it is. Son's Ricky Villa run and Alli's shot refusing to cross the line pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this exit.
Roll with the punches. We got TKO'ed. We've got a fight on Thursday. We're going to have to improve our footwork and how we distribute our energy, what with another challenge to follow at the weekend. Two successive victories where the opponent throws in the towel will go some way to easing the pain.