Monday, April 21, 2008

Almost There Now

Somehow or other, it's the end of the season already. Chelsea, for reasons best known to the Premier League, played on Thursday night, and their 1-0 win cranked up a little more pressure on Manchester United, who were reliant on a late goal from Carlos Tevez to get a point from their trip to Blackburn Rovers. High excitement, then, ahead of the match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on Saturday lunchtime. I'm trying to contain my excitement but, as you can probably imagine, I'm more or less at bursting point. Saturday's result does at least mean that the championship can't be definitively won or lost this weekend. Far more interesting are events at the bottom of the table, where even now anyone from Wigan Athletic in thirteenth place could get dragged back into a relegation battle. The current prognosis is bleakest for Birmingham City, who lost 5-1 at Aston Villa and dropped into the bottom three for the first time in few weeks, whilst Bolton's win at Middlesbrough looks likely now to be enough to save them. The football news at the weekend, however, was overshadowed by the death of an Aston Villa after the match at Villa Park on Sunday afternoon. The Sun somehow contrived to decide that the driver of the car was a Birmingham City supporter. Nothing changes, does it? Nineteen years on from Hillsborough, they're still doing the same thing.

The big match of the weekend was in the Championship, where Stoke City played Bristol City at The Britannia Stadium. Stoke won the match 2-1 with goals from Mamady Sidibe and Ricardo Fuller to finally open up a little bit of daylight between second and Hull City, who lost 2-0 at in form Sheffield United, in third place. If they win at already relegated Colchester United on Saturday and Hull fail to beat Crystal Palace, they'll be promoted with a match to spare. Given the way that the Championship has unfolded throughout the season, it almost seems like something of a travesty that it might not go to the last game of the season. West Bromwich Albion are more or less home and dry after a 2-1 win at Norwich City. A win against struggling Southampton on Saturday will take them up. At the bottom of the table, it was all change again. This time last week, it looked like it was the curiously unpopular Leicester City who would be going down. They, however, eased their worries with a 1-0 win at Barnsley, whilst Coventry City won 5-1 at Colchester to ease their own fears and drop Sheffield Wednesday back into the bottom three. It's still any one from six to go down with two matches to go, though.

League One is also as clear as mud with two matches to play. Swansea City are promoted as champions, even though they lost at home to Yeovil Town on Saturday, but the race for second place and the other automatic promotion place is still wide open. Carlisle United's recent wobble continued with a 2-1 home defeat by Southend United, but Doncaster Rovers could only reduce their advantage to two points after they drew 1-1 at Leyton Orient. Nottingham Forest are still looming ominously in third place after a 1-0 win against relegated Luton Town. The play-off places are more or less decided, with Southend United already there and four points between Leeds United and Brighton & Hove Albion, although Brighton managed to maintain the illusion of still being in with a chance after beating Hartlepool United 2-1 on Saturday. One more win from their remaining two matches will be enough for Leeds, though. At the bottom, Bournemouth's extraordinary revival continues. They were dead and buried two or three weeks ago, but they won 3-1 at Walsall to leave themselves four points adrift with two matches to go, but they have won five successive matches to get themselves into a position of being close to safety - if they were to get two more wins and clamber to safety, it would surely be the most remarkable such run in the history of the game.

At the bottom of League Two (out of deference to my already fragile blood pressure, we'll quietly ignore what happened at the top), a little bit of life was breathed into the corpse of Mansfield Town and Wrexham's seasons last weekend. Mansfield beat Shrewsbury Town 3-1 at Field Mill, whilst Wrexham beat Notts County 1-0. There is a chance that one or both of these clubs could haul themselves out of trouble, with County (the oldest club in the Football League) and Dagenham & Redbridge (at the time of writing, the youngest club in the Football League, having been a merger between Dagenham and Redbridge Forest in 1992) possibly on hand to join them. Wrexham have a game win hand on the rest away to Hereford United tonight, but even if they lose that, they wouldn't be mathematically relegated until the end of Saturday at the earliest. A win or draw tonight, and two wins in their remaining two matches might be enough. Mansfield have closed the gap on Dagenham to just a single point.

Most of the non-league trophies have now been handed out. Aldershot celebrated their Conference championship with a 0-0 draw at Halifax Town (a result which mean more to the hosts that it did to the visitors), whilst the play-offs are now likely to be between Torquay United, Burton Albion, Cambridge United and Exeter City, though Stevenage Borough could yet catch Exeter with two matches to play. There are a round of matches being played in the Conference tonight, with just two points separating Northwich Victoria, Altrincham, Halifax Town and Farsley Celtic at the bottom of the table. Perhaps surprisingly, none of those four are playing each other tonight - in fact, Altrincham don't even have a match, whilst the other three all take on potentially disinterested mid-table sides. Northwich are at Stevenage, whose faint play-off hopes will be extinguished if they don't win, Halifax travel to Crawley and Farsley Celtic travel to York City. It's too close to call at the moment, and likely will still be tomorrow morning, as well. Kettering Town and Lewes will be playing Conference football next season, and we'll be taking a closer look at the candidates in the Conference North and South play-offs next week.


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