Football: Souness, Reid, Robson, Strachan - two from four will go

Guy Hodgson attempts to unravel the complexities surrounding the outcome of tomorrow's Premiership programme
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The Independent Online
Then there were four. If nothing else Blackburn Rovers' draw with Middlesbrough on Thursday clarified the Premiership's relegation issue. Now 42 points is a haven and two from Southampton, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Coventry City will be safe tomorrow. The other duo will be contemplating life without full BSkyB money and trips to Port Vale rather than Manchester United.

Brian Little, who sampled last-dayitis two seasons ago with Aston Villa, put the relegation threatened manager's plight into words this week. "I sympathise with anyone in that position," he said. "You work out results in your mind and if they don't go as you expect it's terrible. You can drive yourself crazy with worry."

At least Messrs Souness, Reid, Robson and Strachan will not have that problem much longer. It is just tonight that they will toss and turn working out the permutations. "If we win by two goals and they lose..."

Not that they are simple even for the uncommitted. Southampton, on 41 points, will be safe if they get a point at Villa but if they lose they can be overhauled by Sunderland and Middlesbrough, the first by points, the second by goal difference. Mathematicians will be to the fore in the latter case as Southampton's goal difference is minus five and Middlesbrough, who travel to Leeds, is minus nine.

There is also a scenario where all four teams might finish on 41 points which will mean the drop for Sunderland and, barring a miraculous scoring feat,Tottenham-bound Coventry, who, like Sunderland, have a goal differences of minus 17.

Got that? Good. Perhaps you can explain it fully to the managers concerned so that last season's farce when Manchester City were playing for time against Liverpool in the mistaken assumption they were safe will be avoided. At least Niall Quinn, who shot out of the dressing-room to tell Alan Ball of his mistake, will be on hand again if Sunderland make a similar error.

Which is unlikely as Sunderland are going to have their hands full just dealing with their opponents, never mind monitoring the radio. As Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, said on Thursday night: "The last place I'd want to go to get a win is Wimbledon." Peter Reid's team have precisely that problem.

Ferguson believes Middlesbrough will escape and was prepared to bet a reporter pounds 20 to that end, although, in at least one respect, Boro are worse off than they have ever been. Week in week out their games in hand have allowed their manager, Bryan Robson, to say: "At least our future is in our own hands." Not any more though.

Their fate slipped into the possession of others when they could manage only a win and two draws this congested week. "We always knew," Robson said, "that even if we had beaten Blackburn we would still have to go to Leeds and get a win so the mental state is the same. The disappointing thing is that we have to rely on other people."

Leeds in particular, who have perfected the art of the bore draw and who have not conceded a home goal in the League since Boxing Day. "George Graham has made them difficult to break down," Robson said, "but we have some quality strikers."

Principally, he means Fabrizio Ravanelli, who has been in Italy this week getting treatment on his back and thigh injury. He will fly to Teesside today when he will have a fitness test. "I spoke to Fabrizio this morning," Robson said, "and I understand he has been training for the last two days."

On the subject of morale Robson added: "We're not too down, because, with the week we've had, we're happy to still have a chance." If you want an objective view of that chance, however, William Hill have quoted Boro at 4-11 to go down with Coventry as favourites at 1-9, Sunderland at 4- 5 and Southampton 10-1.

Things are also far from clear-cut near the top. One out of Liverpool, Arsenal and Newcastle will join Manchester United in the Champions' League as runners-up, while the other two will have a Uefa Cup place. Which leaves only one more ticket to Europe which will be filled by Villa, Chelsea or Sheffield Wednesday.

In the end it might all come down to the simplest of differentials - luck. "If we just get the breaks," Robson said wistfully yesterday. It is a thought that will echo in a few minds tonight.

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