Monday, March 24, 2008

Spring Cleaning

In previous years, the Easter weekend was the time of year when everything suddenly became clear. This year, however, many things seem just as unresolved as they did last week. Partly it's because Easter is so damn early this year, and partly it's because many of English football's more pressing tête à têtes this year seem unlikely to be resolved before the very last day of the season. Still, there was always time for Sky Sports to broadcast "Sooper Dooper Sunday - The Most Masculine Easter In The History Of Mankind", in which Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea came together to prove once and for all that the Premier League is considerably more important than Jesus. This, of course, followed "Irrelevant Saturday", in which the teams that don't matter stood around, picking their noses and occasionally kicking a football about.

This weekend's football was notable for even more over the top masculinity than usual. Whether it was coming from Cristiano Ronaldo (top left), Javier Mascherano, who looked like a drunk spoiling for a fight outside a kebab shop after his (thoroughly deserved) sending off for Liverpool at Old Trafford yesterday, or Didier Drogba busting out of his Chelsea shirt like The Incredible Hulk after scoring against Arsenal, there was a lot of testosterone on display yesterday, although whether there was much of anything else on display is open to question. It's probably fair enough to say that results yesterday meant that the championship trophy is on its way to Old Trafford. Manchester United didn't play particularly well yesterday, but Liverpool were shocking enough to not make 3-0 seem like a flattering scoreline. That result cranked the pressure up on Arsenal, but things seemed to be going reasonably well for them with twenty minutes to play at Stamford Bridge and with a one goal lead, but then Avram Grant revealed himself to be not quite as tactically incompetent as many people had thought and brought on Anelka and Belletti for Ballack and Makalele. Within two minutes Chelsea were level, and within ten minutes they had a lead which they managed to hold onto. A bad day at the office for Arsenal, then - Chelsea have leapfrogged over them and into second place, and United now need to lose two of their remaining matches to give Arsenal or Chelsea a chance to catch them, which doesn't look very likely.

Even in defeat Liverpool were fortunate at the weekend, as Everton failed to make up much ground with a nervy 1-1 draw against Nothing To Play For West Ham. All of the chasing pack seem to have started playing badly since they started to realise that they had a chance of actually achieving something this season. Aston Villa were beaten at home by Sunderland, and Portsmouth lost at the alarmingly schizophrenic Spurs. The bottom of the table remains very much as you were. Reading took a giant step towards safety with a 2-1 win against Birmingham City, whilst Kevin Keegan, who has "gone from being a Messiah to being a very naughty boy" (as Gary Lineker succinctly put it at the end of "Match Of The Day"), finally got his first win at the weekend as Newcastle beat Fulham 2-0 at St James Park. Theoretically, anyone from Newcastle down in the current Premier League table could yet get sucked back into the battle against relegation, but it now looks like being Derby, Fulham and one from Bolton, Birmingham or Sunderland to join them.

End of season nerves also seem to be kicking in at the top of the Championship, where Bristol City lost at Cardiff and Stoke City were held at home by Blackpool. Few of the chasing pack were able to make up that much headway on them - West Bromwich Albion and Charlton played out a 1-1 draw on Friday night and Watford made it a nosebleed-inducing seven draws in a row at Plymouth on Saturday. The big beneficiaries at the top of the Championship were Hull City, whose surprising run from the bottom of the table to the top continued with them moving into third place in the table with a 2-0 win at Leicester. It still seems likely that another set of supporters will spend next season whining about how they're too big for League One, with Sheffield Wednesday, Leicester City, Coventry City and Southampton likely to be fighting it out to avoid joining Scunthorpe United and Colchester United through the trapdoor next season.

The bottom two divisions of the Football League play a round of matches this afternoon, with Nottingham Forest playing Brighton & Hove Albion at The City Ground in a match between two of the eight teams within five points of a play-off place. Leeds United seem to be moving ominously back into form - their 2-0 win against Walsall on Saturday saw them move back up into eighth place - whilst Tranmere Rovers came from nowhere into sixth place with a win against Port Vale on Thursday night. The top two in League Two played out a 1-1 draw on Friday night, but there were more nerves on display on Saturday afternoon as the chasing pair of Hereford United and Darlington failed to make up any ground on them. At the bottom of the table, it now looks likely that Wrexham and Mansfield Town will be visiting the likes of Forest Green Rovers and Grays Athletic next season, with Aldershot Town and one from Cambridge United, Burton Albion, Stevenage Borough, Torquay United or Exeter City to replace them. There will be plenty more shredded nerves before this season is done.


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