Football is, of course, a results-based business and, much as we might like to believe that there is some sort of moral level at which the game would start to care about anything else whatsoever, it doesn’t. So it was that there was an element of litmus test about Sunderland’s trip to Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea on Sunday afternoon. What sort of bounce might the Wearside club pick up from the appointment of Paolo Do Canio? Well, the answer to that question was, “not enough for them to dig a result of any sort from a fixture that they were not expected to.” Chelsea won the match by two goals to one, which kept their battle to retain their place in the Champions League for next season, while Sunderland remain hovering just above the relegation places in the Premier League, their position having become all the more unstable for Aston Villa’s win at Stoke City on Saturday afternoon.
Villa’s win at The Brittania Stadium on Saturday afternoon turned up the heat on Tony Pulis for the first time this season. Stoke City are heading in the wrong direction for the first time since ascending to the Premier League in the first place, and this leaves Pulis in an unfamiliarity uncomfortable position. Perhaps more than any other manager in the entire division, his place at the club is based on results and results alone, and the more agricultural aspect of Stoke’s game feels more and more pressured when league points aren’t coming through the door. It would, of course, be madness to sack him before the end of the season, but that doesn’t mean that this is an impossibility and there is a definite feeling that Stoke City is a club that needs a sweep through with a broom at the end of this season, regardless of which division they ate to start next season in. Aston Villa at meanwhile, now look likely to match all pre-season predictions and scramble their way to fifteenth place in the table. Still, however, it feels as if Villa Park will be another place at which a clear out will be necessary once summer finally arrives.
It says something for Tottenham Hotspur’s recent form that a late goal and a two-all draw at home against Everton yesterday afternoon could be celebrated as being something approaching a win. The predictability of Spurs’ end of season choke has been quite startling, and the jangling of nerves at White Hart Lane was the most audible sound there yesterday as they managed to salvage a point from a match that they really needed to win. This result, coupled with Chelsea’s win against Sunderland and Arsenal’s win at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, which was made trickier than it should have been by the sending off of Per Mertesacker but was achieved nevertheless, means that Spurs are now clearly the underdogs in this three way race to cling onto to coat tails of Manchester United and Manchester City as the season enters its closing stages. It is still two from three for those final two Champions League places, but the games in hand that both Chelsea and Arsenal have over them now has a decidedly ominous flavouring for Spurs supporters.
A similar situation continues at the top of League One, though Doncaster Rovers are starting to look unassailable at the top of the table. Another win for them at the weekend kept them six points clear of the pack, meaning that an automatic return to the Championship remains very much on the cards at The Keepmoat Stadium. Below them, the chase for second place in the table seems likely now to go to the wire, with Bournemouth still looking the most likely to join them, although it remains difficult to make that statement with any considerable conviction. At the other end of the table, and as discussed on these pages yesterday, a goalless draw for Portsmouth at home against Stevenage may have finally extinguished Pompey’s chances of avoiding relegation, although Oldham Athletic, who only sit a point above them but still have games in hand, continue to look nervously over their shoulders.
The Football League, meanwhile, continues to rumble on in its now characteristically chaotic manner. Cardiff City remain almost but not quite there following a goalless draw with Watford on Saturday evening, a result which finally extinguished the last possibility of Cardiff missing out on a place in the Premier League. The gap between first and third places in the division remains at eight points, and Watford couldn’t manage the single goal that might have set alarm bells ringing in South Wales. Elsewhere, Hull City won, whilst Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest and Brighton and Hove Albion all drew, though there was some significance in Brighton’s draw, in that it kept them in the last of the play-off places, when a defeat at home to Leicester City would have seen them drop out of those places in favour of Leicester. At the other end of the table, meanwhile, defeat for Bristol City means that it will now require something highly improbable to keep them up, whilst above them chaos continues to reign.
Finally, if you heard the sound of champagne corks popping at the weekend, the chances are that these were either coming from the vicinity of Gillingham or Chester. Gillingham’s one-nil win against Torquay United – who themselves remain in deep trouble at the other end of the table – was enough to ensure their return to League One after an absence of three years, while Chester made it three league titles in a row at the weekend in securing the Blue Square Bet North championship. They will start next season in the Blue Square Bet Premier, the same division that the club’s forerunner, Chester City, was in when it folded during the 2009/10 season. Proof, as if it were needed, that getting the Vaughan family the hell away from The Deva Stadium no matter what the short term cost was definitely a price well worth paying.
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