Going Up? Staying Down?
If you disregard the top of the Premiership, which has been almost completely predictable for the whole of the season, this has been a brilliant season, with issues at the top and bottom of more or less every league you can think of which most likely won’t be resolved until the very last minute of the last day of the season.
At the top of the Premiership, Britain’s dullest soap opera rumbles on. Manchester United and Chelsea both showed signs of fatigue at the weekend. United’s squad is, thanks to injuries, looking a little threadbare ahead of their Champions League semi-final against Milan this week, and the Italians will not have been terribly scared by anything they saw on Saturday evening, as United laboured to 1-1 draw against Middlesbrough. Chelsea, of course, couldn’t take advantage of their rivals’ slip up, and bored their way to a goalless draw at Newcastle yesterday. We might well have a super-exciting star-packed end to the season to look forward to, but on the basis of last weekend, the most pressing job ahead of Alex and Jose will be to keep their players awake for the whole of their matches.
At the bottom of the table, the weekend’s results created more questions than they answered. The FA’s investigation into the Mascherano and Tevez transfers begins this week, so it may all prove to be academic, but West Ham at least managed to keep their hopes alive with a 1-0 win against Everton – the latter’s first defeat in eighteen matches. Just above them, the “must win” match between Charlton and Sheffield United ended in, you guessed it, a draw – a result that did United more favours than their hosts. Meanwhile, Fulham continued their slide towards the bottom three after failing to beat Blackburn at Craven Cottage, and Wigan are hardly safe after they lost at Liverpool. Three games to go, and just four points separate Fulham, Wigan, Sheffield United, Charlton and West Ham. Plenty of mileage in this, yet.
The Championship has been the footballing equivalent of an insane asylum for the whole of the season, and the weekend’s results provided yet more twists and turns in the increasingly undignified battle to join the Premiership. It was Sunderland’s turn to suffer last weekend, with a 3-1 defeat at Colchester, who are still, inexplicably, in with a shout of making the play-offs. It’s down to two from three at the top now, with the chasing pack having fallen away. Birmingham won a terrific match at Wolves yesterday, but Derby had kept the pressure up by relegating Luton on Friday night, so there’s still all to play for there. Just three points now separate fourth placed West Bromwich Albion and tenth placed Sheffield Wednesday, and any of the teams in between could find themselves in the Premiership and scratching their heads over how they got there. At the bottom of the table, it was a horrendous weekend for Leeds, who went down to a late goal at Southampton, whilst Barnsley and Leicester both won, and Hull picked up an unexpected draw at Stoke. Southend are all but down after they lost at Plymouth.
In League One, we should, of course, be offering out heartiest congratulations to Scunthorpe United, who guaranteed their promotion with a 2-0 win at Tranmere on Saturday. Bristol City are almost there, too. They need just one more win to guarantee the second automatic promotion spot. Nottingham Forest and Blackpool are guaranteed a place in the play-offs. There’s something vaguely retro sounding about that, isn’t there? Leyton Orient, whose slide towards the relegation places had been so gradual to have passed almost unnoticed, finally secured their place in the same division with a massive win at Bradford, who now seem likely to complete their seven year slide from the top division to the basement. What price an almighty struggle next season, to keep their league place?
Finally, League Two. Hartlepool and Walsall are already up, and Swindon would need a Bradford-esque collapse (two three goal defeats would do it) to avoid dropping them. The play-offs are likely to be between Franchise, Lincoln, Shrewsbury and Stockport (although Bristol Rovers could yet upset that particular apple-cart if they win their game in hand). They used to be a bigger club than this, Bristol Rovers. They’ve stagnated for a long time in League Two, but promotion would see both halves of the city celebrating. At the bottom, Wrexham thought that they had done enough to celebrate staying up when they beat Torquay yesterday, but Boston kept the pressure on them by beating Chester City. These two wins dragged a further three teams back into the relegation mire – Accrington Stanley, Bury and Macclesfield Town will all now be looking nervously over their shoulders for at least one more week, with just three points separating them from Wrexham and Boston. Boston and Wrexham, as you may recall, play each other on the last day of the season. Exciting times indeed.