The mutual-consent hit-and-run Premier Preview
ItÃ¢ÂÂs been a quiet week, with just the usual stories cropping up: one team deducted points for the first time in Premier League history; another creating European history; a manager being sacked; the manager being replaced; and two hit-and-runs by former or current England captains, one with a car and one with an elbow.
One guilty party was visited by police and breathalysed; the other got away with it. Of course, Inside Track couldnÃ¢ÂÂt possibly comment on how Steven Gerrard seems to be protected by the Mafia, but fortunately our unfortunately-named guest blogger Paddy Power has.
Anyway, moving on...
As winter becomes spring, fans look nervously towards the end of the season. Many won't be as pleased as you might think that it's going to see such a tight finish. Well, in the Premier League, at any rate. Lower down, not so much.
The two automatic promotion spots from the Championship look all but guaranteed to go to Newcastle and West Brom; ditto in League One with Norwich and Leeds; and in League Two Rochdale are eight points clear at the top.
But this is nothing compared to the Conference South. In first place, and promoted with seven games remaining, are Dean Holdsworth-managed Newport County on 88 points. In second, 27 points adrift and 186 miles' drive away (arguably defeating the object of a geographically split division), are Chelmsford with 61. First and second Ã¢ÂÂ 27 points between them. Good thing the play-off battle is a close one.
So even if the Premier League isn't the most exciting league in the world, at least it's probably the most exciting league in England.
What? We said probably.
Arsenal vs West HamArsenal target Balazs Dzsudzsak Ã¢ÂÂ he's Hungarian, if you couldn't tell Ã¢ÂÂ has suggested he'll stay at PSV if they qualify for the Champions League. Fortunately for him (he wants to go really), they probably won't.
In second behind FC Twente, PSV are currently set to qualify, but Ajax are a point behind and with a goal difference of 62 compared to PSV's 38. Sixty-two. SIXTY-TWO. At home, they've scored 50 and conceded four. Good luck matching that, Eindhoven.
At West Ham, Calum Davenport's been terminated Ã¢ÂÂ sorry, Calum Davenport's contract's been terminated Ã¢ÂÂ by the club. Mutual consent is the claim, presumably in the same way Davenport consented to be stabbed in both legs, consented to lose 50% of the blood in his body and consented to undergo emergency surgery (actually, he probably did consent to the last one).
Anyway, 'by mutual consent' Davenport has left West Ham Ã¢ÂÂ who, it has to be said, probably made up about 90% of that mutuality. Clubs and players are equal, but some are more equal than others.
What wonÃ¢ÂÂt happen: Dzsudzsak to turn down an Arsenal offer. It's just not going to happenWhat will happen: Home win
Aston Villa vs WolvesTrue to their returns policy, Wolves have taken back Chris Iwelumo from Bristol City after a month's loan and given them Austrian international Stefan Maierhofer in return. It's another 28-day emergency loan, which is not in any way being abused by Championship managers, oh no no, not at all.
What wonÃ¢ÂÂt happen: The misuse of this emergency loan rule to be investigated in the next 10 years or soWhat will happen: Aston Villa will expect three points here, and will almost certainly get them
Everton vs BoltonThe Toffees wave goodbye to Landon Donovan, who flies back to Los Angeles after providing 10 weeks of good football and one appalling miss. Everton may miss him.
Bolton, meanwhile, could move into 12th with a win here, which just doesn't seem right somehow.
What wonÃ¢ÂÂt happen: Bolton fans get smacked on the Miaow Miaow and hallucinate a thumping victory to go with the nosebleeds of 12th What will happen: Home win
Portsmouth vs HullBye bye Brown. Phil, that is, not Gordon. This blog was never the permatan's biggest fan (you may have noticed) but already thereÃ¢ÂÂs a strange sadness; a petit mort, as if we never knew how good we had it. After all, he was great to laugh at. Good of Hull, then, to replace him with The Elephant Man.
The timing of Brown's sacking is intriguingly awkward. Earlier in the season it seemed Hull were just waiting for a defeat for the excuse to be rid of him, but then he strung a few results together. This time they've stuck to their guns: conceding eight goals at Everton and West Ham would surely have been the catalyst for Brown's departure, not being a few seconds away from drawing with Arsenal Ã¢ÂÂ his final game in charge.
Anyway, water under the bridge. Good luck to Zowie Dowie.
What won't happen: Requiring just two points to surpass Derby's 11, Portsmouth are unlikely to finish with a record low tally in spite of their nine-point deduction (finally administered), but that's not much of a silver lining, really, is it?What will happen: Home win, and much crying of "Oh s**t, what have we done?" from the Tigers
Stoke vs SpursRyan Shawcross is back from suspension, which would please Spurs fans if he was playing against anyone apart from their team. The only thing an embittered Spurs fan likes more than an Arsenal defeat is a crippling Arsenal defeat, and failing that, just a crippling. They'll have quietly saluted Shawcross for that, but won't fancy facing him this weekend Ã¢ÂÂ even if he does take time to get his head back in the game.
Still, Spurs fans can cheer themselves with the knowledge their team is now officially safe from relegation, and at an earlier stage of a season than ever before. You can never be too sure.
What wonÃ¢ÂÂt happen: Shawcross won't click straightaway...What will happen: ...and Spurs will take advantage. Nevertheless: draw
Sunderland vs BirminghamNo surprises that Alex McLeish is being offered a new contract at Birmingham: newly promoted this season, they sit happily in the top half Ã¢ÂÂ eighth, in fact Ã¢ÂÂ and favourites for this clash.
Things are picking up in Sunderland, too, ever since this blog suggested they should take the threat of relegation seriously. If the 4-0 win over Bolton wasn't enough of a 'f*** you', they were only denied a win over Man City by an injury-time equaliser.
It's looking less likely, then, that Sunderland and Newcastle will do an end-of-season division swap. It's a shame in one way at least: imagine the billboards in Newcastle if they did. The player in focus would surely be a pumped-up Kevin Nolan, recently awarded Championship Player of the Year in the 2010 Football League Awards. This may have something to do with the fact that heÃ¢ÂÂs clearly too good for the Championship.
What won't happen: Birmingham to qualify for the Europa League now McLeish has mentioned it. Alex, you fool! Can't you see it's like that blob of coloured light in the corner of your eye that disappears as soon as you look at it?What will happen: Two teams in form means two points shared
Wigan vs BurnleyThere's one every week, and this week's relegation six-pointer sees some likely survivors against some less likely to make it.
Wigan's ability to somehow appear safe yet in danger is second only to their amazing knack of beating the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool only to lose 4-0 to Bolton and 9-1 to Spurs. They've lost four of their last five matches but don't seem to have moved in the table, like some sort of unflushable turd or, more charitably, a penny glued to the pavement.
Burnley look eminently flushable, especially after taking zero points from home games against fellow strugglers Portsmouth and Wolves. Rumours are already abounding that Brian Laws is on his way out, though Burnley have moved to deny this. In fact, they said reports of his sacking were "ludicrous, irresponsible, damaging and inaccurate". A bit like their defence, then.
What won't happen: Burnley to survive this seasonWhat will happen: Wigan win to prove the point
Blackburn vs ChelseaSo, John Terry ran down a security guard and kept on driving. HeÃ¢ÂÂs out of control. Apparently he was going at nearly 2mph, which, if you want a sense of scale, is about twice as fast as he can run.
Yes, itÃ¢ÂÂs not quite as exciting as the term Ã¢ÂÂhit and runÃ¢ÂÂ suggests, although thatÃ¢ÂÂs technically what it was. The best part of the story is that Terry, having somehow contrived to break a man's leg despite driving slower than he can think, apparently didn't know he'd hit anyone until someone told him upon returning home. Brilliant.
What wonÃ¢ÂÂt happen: As much entertainment from BlackburnWhat will happen: Scrappy away win
Fulham vs Manchester CityWell, how about that? The Cottagers have been in the Europa League since July two-thousand-and-bloody-nine and they're not planning on dropping out now.
The victory over Juventus was nothing short of incredible, and in spite of a questionable red card for Fabio Cannavaro, fully deserved. Where can Fulham go from here? It's been a phenomenal season. Roy Hodgson should be given a knighthood or a KitKat or something.
Roberto Mancini should not. Scraping to a draw with Sunderland? Yowser. And now Wayne Bridge is out with a hernia, which this blog understands to be a euphemism for a lady of the night.
What wonÃ¢ÂÂt happen: Roy Hodgson to get Manager of the Year, because that's exactly what should happenWhat will happen: McLeish could grab it, actually. Away win as Fulham come down hard
Manchester United vs LiverpoolHold on to your trilbies, itÃ¢ÂÂs the big one Ã¢ÂÂ oh, who are we kidding? Any importance this game carries is in two separate battles: for first and for fourth.
Liverpool weren't impressive in their Europa League fixture but wandered into the quarter-finals. The only thing less inspiring than Lille that night was Five's commentary team.
The less than brilliant insight of Stan Collymore, the complete lack of analysis from John Scales and Pat Nevin, the sheer, misinformed banality of whoever the main bloke was... it was enough to make you look forward to the prospect of David Beckham being a pundit at the World Cup.
Manchester United welcomed the return of Owen Hargreaves to the reserves after 18 months without kicking a football, an event the BBC website marked on Thursday night by replacing their Premier League homepage with a giant, screenbreaking picture of the player. As cock-ups go, it was 80% hilarious and 100% terrifying.
What wonÃ¢ÂÂt happen: A U-turn quite as impressive as Albert Riera's. The winger stuck the boot into fellow Spaniard Rafa Benitez, saying the manager has something personal against him, just four months after announcing Liverpool "need to be calm". Shame he can't turn a 180 as quickly on the pitchWhat will happen: Liverpool shock but United prevail