by Susan Jardine

As the season enters its final countdown it seems as though Newcastle are heading for Europe.

The Magpies have delighted neutrals throughout the season with their style of football and have shown what hard work combined with self belief can achieve. No match has been thought of as impossible to win and embarrassing the Champions Elect just after Christmas underlines what formidable opposition they have become.

And of course the greatest irony is that the person who just about rubber stamped European football was a former Toon Army idol. It had to be Andy Carroll of all people who’s strike in the FA Cup semi final has put the Newcastle supporters in dreamland- and sent them looking for their passports. Europa League looks certain, but thanks to Wigan upsetting Arsenal, Tottenham imploding and Chelsea’s horrific fixture programme the prospect of Champions League football is still a realistic possibility.

But before all the flights can be booked there is the small matter of completing the task in hand and Newcastle can just about make sure of it mathematically with victory over Stoke at St James. Demba Ba took care of Stoke at the Brittania Stadium earlier this season and the Stoke back four had enough trouble in dealing with him. They now have the onerous task of handling Papisse Cisse, who looks unstoppable at the moment. The problem for Tony Pulis is how to mark him. It may take two central defenders to deal with him, which in turn leaves Hatem Ben Arfa and Ba with more than enough room to do the damage themselves. Stoke really have nothing to play for – there is no danger of relegation and no chance of European football – so Newcastle have a gilt edged chance to really improve their goal difference. However they must make sure that they do not take liberties and maintain the discipline on the pitch which has played a key part in their success.

While Newcastle can’t stop scoring Sunderland are finding that to be difficult task. They have now gone three games without a goal and their performance against Wolves last weekend had a classic end of term feel about it. Sat watching it I thought there was a bit more urgency than what I saw against Tottenham but once again they did not look like finding the back of the net. This weekend they face a trip to Birmingham to face Aston Villa, a side who are not yet safe from relegation. Three points against the Black Cats will go a long way towards easing any lingering fears. And of course it means a return for Martin O’Neil to his previous club, not to mention Craig Gardner possibly lining up against his brother Gary, who is currently sporting the claret and blue of the Villains. Looking at the fixture I can see only one outcome and that is a win for Aston Villa.

Curtis Main’s goal for Middlesbrough at Pride Park last weekend breathed life into the Teesiders’s hopes of a play-off place. But all of that good work was undone in midweek when they disappointed in a goalless draw against Doncaster. Lying four points off a top six spot their fate is no longer in their own hands as they are going to have to rely on teams taking points off Cardiff. This weekend the task is even harder on paper as they entertain Southampton at the Riverside in their penultimate fixture. Southampton require just one point to ensure their return to the Premiership. For Middlesbrough the equation is a stark one. It is win or bust. Anything other than three points will mean that Middlesbrough will definitely be playing Championship football next season.

After falling apart last weekend against Chesterfield Hartlepool head to the Wirral to face Tranmere Rovers, another team in mid-table. Despite the loss to the Spireites last weekend Hartlepool fans will no doubt be breathing a huge sigh of relief as any lingering worries about relegation were effectively killed off as results went their way. Irrespective of that the Hartlepool players owe it to their fans to ensure as high a finish as possible, so a better performance is a must against Tranmere.

Finally a word about the FA Cup semi finals. As we all know Liverpool will meet Chelsea at Wembley. But hosting the semi finals at Wembley at the most ludicrous times leaves me with questions as to why. I am aware that it was the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster last weekend. However I cannot understand why a 12.30 kick off was necessary, given the distance that Liverpool and Everton fans were travelling. Yes there was plenty of football action around the country but why didn’t they play the semi final at a 5.30pm kick off? Likewise why were Tottenham and Chelsea kicking off at in the early evening on Sunday when a 2pm kick off would have been equally as viable. I think the time has come to revert to the neutral grounds for semi finals. The Merseyside derby could have been staged at the Etihad on the Saturday with the London derby held at Villa Park the following day.

The other point I would like to make concerns the choice of the referee of the final. I have one question to ask: Why wasn’t Mark Halsey given the honour of the final? For me Mr Halsey has been the best referee in the premiership this season, and the reward of refereeing the final would have been a fitting one. Instead it has gone to Phil Dowd. To say I was disappointed with the decision made is an understatement. It was a golden chance to give Mark Halesy the final. Sadly it was an opportunity not taken.

OK rant over – now to the football this weekend – and have a good one everyone.