Bradford visit gives 'boring' Albion a chance to entertain

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The Independent Online

With only a point needed to join Norwich in gaining automatic promotion to the Premier League, West Bromwich Albion ought to be celebrating by this evening. Indeed, should Sunderland fail to win at Wigan in a lunchtime kick-off, it will be party time at The Hawthorns even before a ball is kicked against already-relegated Bradford City.

With only a point needed to join Norwich in gaining automatic promotion to the Premier League, West Bromwich Albion ought to be celebrating by this evening. Indeed, should Sunderland fail to win at Wigan in a lunchtime kick-off, it will be party time at The Hawthorns even before a ball is kicked against already-relegated Bradford City.

Albion's win at Sunderland last weekend more or less ensured an instant return to the top flight for Gary Megson's side but Sunderland's defeat at Crystal Palace in midweek, their third in a row, as well as confirming Norwich's promotion brought the Baggies' requirement down to a point from four games. Games against Reading and Stoke (away) and Nottingham Forest at home follow today's fixture, which leaves little doubt that the target will be achieved even if Bradford did pull off an enormous shock on manager Bryan Robson's return to the ground where he made his name as a player.

However, Albion could do with finishing with a flourish of goals if they are to silence their critics, who accuse them of making up for a lack of sophistication by grinding out results through negative, defensive play. The 1-0 injury-time win at the Stadium of Light, those critics argue, was typical of their lack of style.

None the less, Albion's captain, Sean Gregan, is making no apology, insisting jealous rivals would happily play the same way if promotion was the end product. "Hundreds of players would swap their position for ours, " he said. "We do play to our strengths but the kind of football we play is successful. We are 12 points clear of third and looking good for promotion.

"We went to Sunderland with a game plan and our job wasn't to entertain but to limit them to as few chances as possible. We got the job done." Sunderland's slump - they have not scored in those three straight defeats - has raised the spectre of promotion slipping through Mick McCarthy's hands in the way a FA Cup final place was grabbed from him by Dennis Wise's eager Millwall.

As well as today's tricky encounter with fellow play-off candidates Wigan, Sunderland have also to take on Norwich at the Stadium of Light, although a home game against Crewe a week today and a trip to Burnley on the last day of the season ought to yield enough points.

The midfielder Darren Williams says Sunderland are "not even considering finishing outside of the play-offs" and aim to claim third spot, although Ipswich might have something to say on that score. Games against Nottingham Forest (today, home), Sheffield United (away) and Cardiff (home) could provide seven points at least for Joe Royle's team and take them above McCarthy's team.

Assuming that Ipswich and Sunderland both finish in the top six, predicting the other two play-off contenders is difficult, given that as many as six or seven are still in with a chance. After five wins in their last seven matches - beating Norwich and West Ham as well as Sunderland - Crystal Palace have built up a momentum that may well take them all the way, especially with Crewe, Walsall and Coventry providing their last three opponents.

That would leave the last place likely to be between Wigan and West Ham, who meet at the JJB Stadium on the last day of the season in what could be a deciding game. Should Wigan beat Sunderland today, the pressure will be firmly on Alan Pardew's side to win at Stoke today and beat Watford at home next weekend.

Even then, however, they would still need Forest, still uncertain of avoiding relegation, to deprive Wigan of all three points at the City Ground a week today if they are not to go to the JJB needing a victory.

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