Compelling relegation battle reaches climax

LONDON - Blackpool will become a second team for most neutral fans on Sunday when the Premier League's most compelling relegation drama for years reaches a nail-biting climax involving the five clubs striving for survival.

With West Ham United having already disappeared through the trapdoor, the identity of the two clubs who will join them in the Championship looks destined to go down to the final kick of the season.

Along with Blackpool, whose first season in the top flight since 1971 has been a white-knuckle ride worthy of the town's famous rollercoasters, Wigan Athletic, Birmingham City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers all enter the final round of fixtures with safety tantalisingly in sight but also staring into the abyss.

With one point seperating 19th-placed Wigan and 15th-placed Blackburn the various combinations for the final act of the season would keep a sudoku enthusiast occupied for hours on end.

Only Wolves and Blackburn, who are both on 40 points and meet at Molineux, have their fate in their own hands.

Victory for either will guarantee another season reaping the rich harvest available for those lucky members of the world's most lucrative domestic league.

For Blackpool, however, the situation is more complicated. With 53 goals and manager Ian Holloway's weekly monologues a TV producer's dream, the Tangerines have added a huge dollop of colour to the Premier League.

Sadly for them, and their new band of admirers, the Lancashire club, third from bottom with 39 points, are away at champions Manchester United on the final day of the season.


Wigan (39), who kept their hopes alive with a thrilling 3-2 home victory over West Ham last week, travel to Stoke City in second last position with a goal difference one worse than that of Blackpool but with arguably the most winnable fixture of the teams struggling for survival.

Birmingham City (39), whose joy at winning the League Cup Final against Arsenal a few weeks ago has been replaced by fear, are potentially the most vulnerable with their form and confidence shot to pieces after last week's 3-0 defat by Fulham.

Above the drop zone by the slender margin of one goal, they travel to face a Tottenham Hotspur side who need victory to clinch fifth place and Europa League football.

Holloway gave his unique take on the situation, mischievously suggesting he is not welcome in the top flight and dismissing reports that a weakened United would be easy prey.

"They will be relieved if we lose and get relegated," Holloway told a news conference. "Then I am not badgering them. I am so annoyed.

"Sir Alex Ferguson is a winner. He would never dream of not being interested in winning any match.

"Look at his record. Those people running the game, what planet are they on? They must have beamed down from planet Zarf. They are not in the right world.

"They think we can only beat Manchester United if they are weak. What a load of baloney. Unfortunately, that is what we are dealing with."