Well maybe that is an over simplification, but when the top two meet on Friday night at St. Marys whoever wins will take a giant step towards getting their hands on the Football League Championship trophy. The winner will, of course, open up a three point gap with three games to play, so theoretically it is still feasible for the losing side to still claim the title, but the odds will favour the victor, so the match does have that “title decider” feel to it.
What once was a three horse race is now looking like a two horse race, thanks to Sam Allardyce who, in ditching decades of West Ham tradition of playing neat attractive passing football in favour of launching the ball “Angry Birds®” style into the opposition penalty area, has seen his side falter in recent weeks.
But collective hats should be taken off to Reading and their manager Brian McDermott who, after a stuttering start have been playing some fantastic football of late and have closed the gap on us, after being 13 places and 15 points behind in mid-November. After being in our wake for so long, they are now clinging on to our coat tails, and their 1-0 success at Brighton on Tuesday night means that both Saints and the Royals go into Friday night’s televised encounter level on points and only separated by our superior goal difference.
Southampton supporters can be grateful of our superior goal difference, after our recent dip in form allowed Reading to close the 5 point gap that existed only two weeks ago. Those extra goals have enabled us to keep our place in the top two at times this season when our form as tailed off; now it means that a draw on Friday, although not ideal, will keep us top of the table for a few more days at least.
The Easter programme of matches garnered 4 points from a possible six, with a splendid 2-0 win at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace watched by a travelling army of nearly 6,000 Southampton fans.
This followed on from a tense and, at times physical, local derby against Portsmouth, whose tackles would not have been out of place if they had been seen at Twickenham. There is no doubt that their bully boy tactics and off the ball fouls (most of which went unpunished by the officials), coupled with the weight of expectation from a fervent home crowd, led to a nervy start by the Saints players.
As I predicted last week, the Portsmouth players gave it their all, as they had very little to lose, and the pressure was on us to get a result. Was the draw a fair result? Some Saints fans would say “yes”, but I’m not one of them; we had twice as many shots on goal than the visitors and only the heroics of Jamie Ashdown in the Portsmouth goal stopped us from gaining a hefty victory. They had three shots on goal all match and scored with two auspicious attempts that, on another day, would have gone nowhere near the goal. They celebrated that equalising goal deep into stoppage time as though they had just won the FA Cup final and no doubt the open top bus is being filled with diesel as I type, for their “victory” procession along Southsea seafront.
So as Friday night looms large on the horizon, I think it is safe to say that this match is probably the most important for Saints since the FA Cup Final of 2003, and will almost certainly have a cup final feel to it come kick-off time. A loss coupled with a West Ham win and suddenly there is only a 3 point gap between us and third place, with a tricky couple of away games at Peterborough and Middlesbrough to come, so things could yet go badly wrong. We need six points from the last four games to secure a return to the Premier League and we should have enough about us to acquire the necessary points in the next two fixtures. Although, with Saints, nothing can ever be taken for granted.