by Susan Jardine
Eight weeks of the season to go and the North East is witnessing a fight to the finish as the battle for places in Europe next season hots up.
Having bagged three points at West Brom last weekend with a display that must have settled the nerves of the Toon Army Newcastle are now level on points with Chelsea in fifth and eight points clear of Liverpool who they host this weekend.
And bearing the mind the match is on April Fool’s Day at St James’ the Toon Army will be hoping that the joke is on Liverpool this weekend. St James’s has never been the happiest hunting ground for Liverpool, and fans of the Scousers will not want any reminding of what happened last season, when they were cut to pieces by the Newcastle attack. Of course since then two of the Toon team have changed sides, they of course being Jose Enrique and Andy Carroll. But Carroll has been a disappointment for Liverpool, while Enrique has spent more time trying to shore up the Liverpool defence. Liverpool of course are still smarting from league defeats at Queens Park Rangers and to Wigan. If the West Londoners and Latics can find a way past the Liverpool defence what will a more potent attack from Newcastle do?
One of my broadcasting colleagues is a Liverpool fan, and he is dreading Sunday already, to the extent where he feels his team will finish in the bottom half of the table. I don’t think the situation at Anfield is that desperate but I do feel that they lack fluidity in midfield, and maybe a little too reliant on Steven Gerrard. They still of course have a Cup victory from this season, and are in the semi finals of the FA Cup but their performances in the league have been disappointing considering the money that has been spent.
While Newcastle dream of Europe, Sunderland may well be thinking of what might have been. Having witnessed their shocking display at home to Everton in the FA Cup on Tuesday night I am at a loss as to how the Toffees did not win by more than the two goals. The Sunderland back four did not look comfortable, and one question I have to ask is why, when taking off Kygiakos did they not replace him with Matthew Kilgallon, a centre half who was sitting on the bench? Instead David Vaughan was brought on and Phil Bardsley, a full back found himself playing at centre half.
Manchester City’s recent stumbles which would suggest that they are now feeling the pressure being applied by their neighbours from Stretford.
Injuries are now kicking in for the Black Cats and key personnel are all on the treatment table and the last thing you want in making a trip to the Etihad to face Manchester City is to have your squad troubled by injuries. I just wonder what that defeat will have done to Sunderland’s self-belief? Lying ten points behind the Magpies it looks a pretty forlorn hope that they can reach Europe and defeat at the Etihad will surely mean an end to any lingering dreams. But there is hope to be found in Manchester City’s recent stumbles which would suggest that they are now feeling the pressure being applied by their neighbours from Stretford.
Following a bad home defeat at the hands of Bristol City Middlesbrough were on their travels in midweek to Ipswich and came away with a point from Portman Road. For the match against Brighton they will have to do without Matthew Bates who has sustained a serious knee injury. Middlesbrough are unbeaten in eight fixtures against the Seagulls but a word of warning to Boro fans; Brighton are unbeaten at home in this calendar year and with Craig Mackail- Smith now fit it is sure to be a fierce battle at the Amex. Neither Middlesbrough or Brighton can afford a defeat with both Blackpool and Cardiff just two points adrift of them in the Championship.
Hartlepool’s rollercoaster season sees them face Sheffield United at the Vic. After grabbing all three points at Yeovil they will be looking to build on that and maybe even throw a spanner in the works of the South Yorkshire side who are chasing promotion. It would be just like Hartlepool to raise their game against a side who have consistently been in the promotion shake up. Their hit and miss form makes them even more difficult to play against. Mathematically it is still possible for Hartlepool to make the play offs, but it is going to take an unbeaten run-in and some dropped points from their rivals. Their fate is not in their hands, but they are capable of avoiding defeat in their final seven games of the season.
So as the number crunching kicks in for sides around the country to secure promotion or avoid relegation so the nerve ends of supporters will now start to fray.
As much as it is possible enjoy your footy this weekend.