The media might be talking up another ‘make-or-break’ match for Liverpool tonight, but the bottom of the table is far more interesting to me. Given our cosy relationship with the relegation zone for the past few seasons, it seems strange to be looking down on the scrap for suvival from the relatively lofty heights of the top half.
Sadly, West Brom are as good as gone already. I say sadly because I’ve got a lot of respect for the way the dignified Tony Mowbray has handled himself and stuck to his footballing principles. The Baggies play some lovely football and scored a couple of great goals at Manchester City, a game you felt they had to win if they were to have any chance of staging an improbable escape, but they have just been unable to tighten things up at the back. Wolves will be back in the Premier League next year, having won the Championship, but you sense they will have to strengthen if they are to avoid a similar fate. I may be wrong about this but I think the only regular starter in their line-up with top flight experience is Jody Craddock, who has been relegated twice with Sunderland and Wolves (both times under the stewardship of Mick McCarthy).
I had rather absent mindedly assumed that Newcastle would have enough quality to drag themselves out of the mire, but they are in serious danger of going down now. Geordie hero he may be but Alan Shearer’s still a managerial novice – and Mike Ashley’s played a dangerous game by entrusting him with Newcastle’s Premier League status. The top flight record of Iain Dowie, Shearer’s choice as his assistant, isn’t all that clever and Newcastle tactics have been a little baffling too. They fluked a draw at Stoke and looked awful at Spurs on Saturday. The multiple changes of formation saw Newcastle players unsure of where they were playing by the end and Damien Duff trying to shackle Aaron Lennon as a makeshift left back. It all rests on their home form now and a text message I received from a Newcastle mate on Sunday ‘cordially inviting me to Newcastle’s last Premier League home game’ may yet prove accurate.
Middlesbrough have at least showed the stomach for the fight of late. They got the big way they craved against Hull the other week and, with a bit of luck, could have beaten us on Saturday. They did look a real threat going forward, with the likes of Tuncay, Aliadiere and Downing proving a real handful, but their nightmare of a run-in could leave Gareth Southgate with just that little bit too much to do.
Blackburn aren’t out of it, either, and I thought their win at the Cottage a month or so ago would have been the catalyst for a climb up the table. You might not have given them much of a chance against Liverpool the other week but I simply couldn’t understand Sam Allardyce’s plan of sticking Christopher Samba up front when he had a perfectly good centre forward in Benni McCarthy on the bench. For a man who has accused Rafa Benitez of being arrogant, I thought Allardyce was incredibly confident when he implied in his post-match interview that Chelsea was the only ‘hard’ game his team had left.
If you’d have asked me at Christmas who the best team I’d seen at the Cottage were this season, I would have said Sunderland. They were ridiculously unlucky not to take all three back to Wearside with them that day and then’s been an unease over the Stadium of Light ever since Roy Keane walked out. Ricky Sbragia’s a likeable guy and Sunderland have got plenty of good players but the Black Cats certainly aren’t safe yet.
It’s Hull who should be looking over their shoulders most nervously, however. Their poor run of form sees them sinking like a stone and it may well be their own inability to get a win that saves one of Middlesbrough or Newcastle. Plenty of plenty in the game have said that the mood hasn’t been the same since Phil Brown took that team-talk out on the pitch at the City of Manchester Stadium. Brown’s assertion that Sunderland’s players were ‘overpaid and underperforming’ only helped to fire up the Mackems to record a crucial win at the weekend and you have to wonder whether his side will end up rueing not strengthing their squad, especially up front, in January.
While it hasn’t quite done the job mathematically, Portsmouth’s win over Bolton should make them save but massive credit should go to our opponents on Saturday, Stoke, who have pretty much secured another season of Premiership football at the Britannia. It may not please the purists, but it is entertaining to watch them battle their way to points – you get the feeling that there’s something about to happen when you are watching one of their games. Tony Pulis has worked wonders on limited resources and with a squad that most had tipped to go straight back down, while the acquisition of James Beattie, whose goals have fired Stoke to safety, most rank as the most inspired bit of business in the whole January transfer window.
The drama of the relegation battle might make the end of the season very exciting but I certainly wouldn’t swap our position now for another white knuckle ride.