For the second day running, the feature event here on Thursday was in the balance until its final moment as Unowhatimeanharry, the beaten favourite behind Nichols Canyon in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, turned around the form under a bold ride by Noel Fehily and held off his old rival by a head. Ruby Walsh threw everything into his finish […]
1) Spurs need to keep their heads. But if they can’t …
Won’t someone think of the kids? OK! Will do! But let’s not get too pious: there was something satisfying – nay, gloriously entertaining – about the way Spurs tumbled down the tunnel at Chelsea last season, raging against the dying of the light. Bottom line, we all enjoy a good rammy, providing everyone sticks to slapstick slaps and only feelings get seriously hurt. And hey, at least it showed they cared. There were signs that Tottenham hackles were threatening to rise again against an obdurate Crystal Palace the other night – Kyle Walker and Victor Wanyama were in particularly feisty mood – but while lids rattled in fear of failure, they never quite came whistling off, and Christian Eriksen simmered everyone down soon enough. It was a sign that Spurs have matured, using their passion as fuel to get the job done, as if an eight-game winning streak wasn’t evidence enough. Still, consecutive near misses in the Premier League would be hard to take, and if Arsenal are the team to effectively nix their latest challenge this weekend … well, you don’t need us to join the dots. Should another capital uproar erupt, let’s not be too censorious. Let’s try to understand and – let’s also be honest with ourselves
2) Lukaku to dent Chelsea’s title challenge and impress Conte?
On paper, Sunday’s trip to Everton looks like Chelsea’s most difficult remaining Premier League assignment. If they negotiate it safely they will feel nearly untouchable and perhaps even rile Spurs before the north London derby kicks off. But to do so they will probably have to tighten up at the back. Chelsea have not kept a clean sheet in their last 11 league matches and are about to face Romelu Lukaku, who has scored in each of his last eight home games and is likely to be particularly highly motivated this weekend: Diego Costa, after all, is suddenly back in the scoring groove and could, therefore, yet beat Lukaku to this season’s golden boot award (Lukaku is on 24 league goals, Costa has 19 … and home matches to come against Middlesbrough, Watford and Sunderland). Plus, of course, out-performing Costa would surely make a strong impression on Antonio Conte, who might be looking to replace the striker this summer. PD
3) Mignolet starts stretch of four big four games
Forcing Liverpool and their all-at-sea defence to perform on May Day seems like a particularly cruel conceptual joke on the part of the fixture compilers. Liverpool go to Watford with their ever-changing, never-evolving back four having shown no signs of improvement since, ooh, 2012, so there’s little point depending on them to get the side over the line in the hunt for a Champions League place. It’ll be down to the forwards to dig them out of trouble again. But there is a plus point to all this. For many months, the finger was pointed at Simon Mignolet, supposedly radiating unease throughout the team, but he’s been solid enough for some time now, helped by an increased willingness to come off his line and punch. Yet still the goals rain in. Which suggests you could assign Lev Yashin and Dino Zoff to take half the net each and still not feel comfortable putting money on Liverpool successfully keeping out a corner. A big four games coming up for Mignolet, then: should he complete this season’s card without further high-profile calamity, the evidence would stack up in his favour, and against the men in front of him. Jürgen Klopp should therefore decide to make do, and spend every precious pfennig of his summer pot on a top-drawer replacement for the woefully erratic Dejan Lovren instead. SM
4) Will Boro bore City into submission?
Semi-interesting fact: only once in the last three seasons have Manchester City completed a league double over a relegated side, when they thumped Fulham 4-2 and 5-0 in 2013-14. It is a slightly odd statistic, given that on 13 of 15 possible occasions over the same period City have done the double over the teams finishing between 13th and 17th – they just don’t seem to show their very best against the very worst. Seven of the remaining eight demoted teams have drawn one of their two games against them, while Cardiff grabbed a 3-2 home victory in August 2013 and Burnley beat them 1-0 in March 2015. It is a run that will end this season, with Sunderland, Hull and Swansea already dispatched twice (indeed only Boro of the division’s bottom eight sides have taken any points off them so far), but though it is unlikely to sustain Middlesbrough for long they have a chance on Sunday to become one of very few recent relegated sides to avoid any kind of league defeat to these opponents. Memories of Marten de Roon’s injury-time headed equaliser at the Etihad in November will not be happy ones for City’s support: their side had gone into the game at the top of a tightly congested table, but while they laboured to a 1-1 draw – their third stalemate in five league games that had also included a defeat at Tottenham – Chelsea were sticking five past Everton, the fifth of 13 successive league wins, and by tea-time had overtaken them and vaulted to the summit, where for the remainder of the season they have been a dispiritingly distant target. Boro’s 34 games this season have featured 67 goals, making them by some margin the most boring team in the Premier League, where the 19 other teams boast an average total goal tally of 94.9, meaning that Middlesbrough fans have been short-changed to the tune of nearly 30 goals (the next most boring side is Manchester United with 74 goals, and the most exciting teams are Liverpool and Bournemouth, both of whose games have cumulatively featured 112). SB
5) Rangers bid to scratch five-year itch
Between January 1969 and January 1973, Rangers did not register a single victory over Celtic in the league. Dark times for the Teddy Bears, though to be fair that was the Jock Stein era at Parkhead – there’s only so much anyone could have done. Fast forward four decades, and Rangers are in the middle of a much longer barren stretch; their last league win over the old enemy came in March 2012. Their enforced top-flight exile explains away much of that time, but since Old Firm hostilities recommenced in the League Cup in 2015, there have been seven meetings: five Celtic wins, two drawn games, and just the one (admittedly cathartic) penalty shoot-out win for Rangers in the Scottish Cup. The aggregate score over the piece has been 15-5 in Celtic’s favour. How long can this go on? A momentum-shifting statement victory over Brendan Rodgers’ Invincibles on Saturday might be too big an ask, but a bit of positivity wouldn’t go amiss in the wake of Pedro Caixinha’s tactical timidity last week in the Cup. Yet another comprehensive smackdown, and Rangers will go into next season wondering whether this run will ever end. They can’t afford to let a problem mutate into a complex.
6) Burnley’s search for away supremacy goes on
Just a couple of months ago, before their game against Middlesbrough on 25 February, Crystal Palace were 19th in the league and separated from Sunderland only on goal difference. Since then Sunderland have won two points, and Palace 19. On Saturday they are odds-on favourites to beat Burnley, and with it secure safety, with three games – including two testing trips to Manchester – to spare. “We have to recognise the importance of Burnley, being just as important as any of the games we have gone through,” Sam Allardyce said. “The lads need to motivate themselves to get to the level they have been to beat Burnley and put it to bed once and for all, get past the 40-point mark and be safe.” Allardyce is a hard character to warm to, but the latest relegation-avoiding turnaround he has mastered is an absolute classic. Palace have won six of their past nine games, a period in which this weekend’s opponents, Burnley, have won one. Sean Dyche’s side are famously yet to win an away game this season, and now have only this match and a trip to Bournemouth next month in which to do so. Indeed, excluding last month’s visit to Anfield, when Ashley Barnes’s early goal allowed them to lead Liverpool for 38 glorious minutes, they have enjoyed a total combined tally of only 14 minutes of away leadership in all competitions this season. They will presumably be targeting the forthcoming home games against Wests Ham and Brom to get the points they need to make themselves safe from the threat of relegation, but their travelling fans deserve to revel in a few more minutes of supremacy before the campaign concludes. SB
7) Sunderland can take heart from previous bouncebacks
So it’s farewell. Sunderland will go down on Saturday if they do not at least match Hull’s result at Southampton – or on Sunday if they lose, Hull also lose but Swansea pull off a shock victory at Old Trafford. On the plus side, they already have more points than they managed in either of their last two relegation seasons – in 2005-06 they ended the season with only 15, and in 2002-03 with 19, tallies that even if added together wouldn’t have saved them in either campaign. Still, if there is one team that should not be overcome with despondency at this point it is Sunderland: after all their three previous relegations in the Premier League era (also including 1996-97, when they amassed an altogether more respectable 40 points), they returned within two years as champions of the second tier. This has been another season of gloom, the inevitable, but for all that, no more forgivable coda to a run of inferior efforts that in the last nine years has seen them finish 14th and 15th once each, and 13th, 16th and 17th twice. Also from their past they have learned that after relegation, mistaken managerial appointments can prove extremely costly (Lawrie McMenemy, we’re looking at you), unless action is very swiftly taken to replace them (Niall Quinn, your turn). Quite where this leaves David Moyes is anyone’s guess, though the away fans who suffered through Wednesday’s defeat at Middlebrough made their opinion very clear indeed. SB
8) History against Hull for Saints trip
February 1951 was not a good time to attempt to play football on England’s south coast. Bournemouth got 10 inches of snow that winter, and though blizzards weren’t the problem on the weekend of the 17th, rain most emphatically was. The Portsmouth Evening News commenced their description of that weekend’s 5-1 thrashing of Leyton Orient thus: “A ploughing match is an event reserved for farmers and farm-workers for the purpose of discovering the niftiest hand at his job. But in this game on Saturday the players had a similar event of their own on the mud flat that once was Fratton Park.” That morning the fire brigade had been called to the Dell, so they could assist with pumping water from the flooded pitch before the arrival in Southampton of Hull City. In the end that game did go ahead, though the Yorkshire Post would describe it as “a slogging struggle in mud and water”. Frank Dudley twice put Southampton in the lead on his home debut for the club, but it was to no avail: the brilliant Raich Carter scored once – his 200th goal in peacetime football – while Ken Harrison and Syd Gerrie were also on the scoresheet in a 3-2 victory that was described as “a fine game” by the watching Earl Mountbatten, Southampton’s president. All this is relevant only because it was the last time Hull won the fixture, with their 14 visits since bringing five draws and nine defeats including a 4-1, a 4-0, a 5-1 and a 6-1. There will certainly be no ploughing competitions on this occasion, so with their last away win in the league now more than eight months ago – they have won two of a possible 48 points on their travels since August – the only rut into which Hull might get stuck is a figurative one. With a couple of wins required to be sure of safety, there could be no better time to struggle out of it. SB
9) Last-day hijinks in League One
Port Vale’s midweek win at Walsall kept alive their slim hopes of springing clear of the League One relegation zone and spread alarm for Gillingham and Bury. But to complete their escape, the Valiants, who tend to be awful on the road, will need to win at Fleetwood Town, who need victory to have any chance of overtaking Bolton Wanderers for an automatic promotion spot. If Vale do muster an improbable victory, then Gillingham will only survive by winning at Northampton Town. And if both they and Gillingham win, then Bury will need at least a point from Southend United, who will jump from seventh into the top six if Bristol Rovers take points off Millwall. PD
10) An intriguing play-off scramble in League Two
If you were still seeking evidence of the entertainment value of the play-off system, you would need to look no further than League Two. The three automatic places are done and dusted, with only the order of the leading trio to be finalised, but after that everything is still up for grabs with two rounds of matches to go in the regular season. Everyone down to Grimsby Town in 14th position remains in the hunt for a play-off berth. It would take something freakish for Luton Town to tumble out of the promotion race, including a heavy defeat this weekend at Accrington Stanley, who, mind you, still have a chance of making a late surge from 13th spot into the play-offs. The team that is currently only one point outside those places, Mansfield Town, host the team that is currently uncatchable in third place and will be hoping that already-promoted Portsmouth no longer harbour ambitions of going up as champions. “They can’t win the title,” said Mansfield manager Steve Evans this week while swinging a pendulum in the general direction of Pompey’s players. “I still think it’s Doncaster’s and if Doncaster slip up, then it’s Plymouth’s. You’re not going to have two slipping up.” PD