Jim White

Stoke and Sunderland face scramble for last seat on life raft

Jim White

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Ultimately, for all the angst and chin stroking, football is the simplest thing. If you score goals you are more likely to win than if you don’t.

Apply that simple lore and the scramble at the bottom of the Premier League looks suddenly clearer. The fog of panic and scramble lifts. The clubs that can score goals will survive. Those that can’t are doomed.

Hard as it might be for him to accept it, we can safely say Harry Redknapp has not managed to burnish his Houdini reputation at Loftus Road. Unless there is an imminent intervention from a force even more divine than Loic Remy’s strike last weekend against Wigan, QPR are down.

As are Reading, a club whose recent change of manager was about the least purposeful in Premier League history. Good man he might be, Nigel Adkins is cut from exactly the same template as the manager he replaced.

Hard-working, well-organised, he lifted Southampton from the depths on a limited budget. Which is precisely what his predecessor did for Reading. In short, he is Brian McDermott with hair. And with the same striking lack of striking resources.

With those two gone, the third relegation spot is, as the late Brian Moore once put it in slightly more elevated circumstances, up for grabs. With Southampton in the ascendant – thanks, according to a Adkins’s rather cheeky assessment, to his fitness programme – and Norwich only one win away from the points tally reckoned by most to be sufficient to stay up, the undignified scramble to escape comes down to the following teams: Wigan, Aston Villa, Stoke and Sunderland.

Wigan are otherwise detained this weekend, accumulating games in hand even as they step out at Wembley. And Aston Villa have embarked on a Wigan-style spring awakening act. Because of football’s simple rule, both are likely to survive.

Like Roberto Martinez with Aroune Kone, Paul Lambert has something rather important at his disposal: a Premier League quality striker. It is a reasonable bet to suggest Christian Benteke’s goals will be enough to keep Villa in the financial uplands.

This is the stark relegation truth: the lack of a man to put the ball in the back of the net is why Stoke and Sunderland, two clubs who most of us predicted at the start of the season would enjoy calm, comfortable security, are the most likely candidates for that final place in the ejector seat.

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And that horrible realisation is causing jitters at both clubs. My how things are getting edgy at the Britannia. Stoke have been rightly renowned as one of the Premier League’s more enlightened and stable operations.

Now suddenly all that money Peter Coates has pumped into his obsession is looking threatened. Relegation now, just as the new television contract means the rewards go stellar, would put to waste all the good work of the past five seasons.

As ever, the problem is that simple one. Tony Pulis has no-one currently capable of putting the ball in the net. Or at least he doesn’t have them on the pitch. Peter Crouch and Michael Owen remain apparently adhered to the bench. One win and six defeats in their last eight games is not a sequence that speaks of form.

What worries Stoke fans is that the quick break wing play which characterised their style previously seems to have gone out of fashion. In its stead has come fearful stodge.

The only good news for the regulars is the remaining fixture list. After facing the potential champions on Sunday, Stoke play QPR, Norwich and Southampton. The bad news is, they have been the most generous opponents in the past few weeks, losing to Wigan and Villa, teams they really needed to better to ensure safety. Fingernails will be in short supply in the Potteries.

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Sunderland, meanwhile, have a not much more demanding fixture list. After the emotional showdown with Newcastle on Sunday, they face, among others, Everton, West Ham and Southampton. Paolo di Canio – the hardest working man in football – will have had his new charges sweating on the training pitch, diligently preparing for the relegation scrap.

There is, however, one thing even the most industrious of managers cannot change: no amount of groundwork will gift him a finisher.

In Steven Fletcher’s prolonged absence, he can make Sunderland’s players as tactically astute as Johan Cruyff. But it won’t put the ball in the net. Indeed, the way things are panning out, suddenly the match on Monday 6 May takes on a new dimension.

When it spewed out of the fixture computer back in August, pitching Stoke against Sunderland in the penultimate game of the season might have appeared of little significance.

The way things are heading, however, it could be a game of enormous consequence, the relegation decider. The question for both sets of supporters is this: by then which of the two clubs will have put themselves into a position they can most benefit from the goalless draw which is certain to be the outcome?

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