The Championship: Roberts double hit lifts Latics

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The Independent Online

The potent strikers of Wigan Athletic and Sunderland continued to fuel the neck-and-neck race between the two clubs for the second automatic promotion place in the Coca-Cola Championship as their sides beat Crewe Alexandra and Watford respectively. With goal difference separating the clubs, expert marksmanship is worth an extra point.

The potent strikers of Wigan Athletic and Sunderland continued to fuel the neck-and-neck race between the two clubs for the second automatic promotion place in the Coca-Cola Championship as their sides beat Crewe Alexandra and Watford respectively. With goal difference separating the clubs, expert marksmanship is worth an extra point.

The Latics, present incumbents of second place, led at Gresty Road from the third minute when Jason Roberts scored the first of his two goals in the 3-1 win. The hosts equalised on the stroke of half-time, but Nathan Ellington scored a penalty and then set up Roberts' second to earn Wigan a goal difference of 32.

"I told the players at half-time these are the games where promotion can be won and lost," Paul Jewell, the Wigan manager, said. "The pitch was bad, the wind was strong, there were plenty of excuses for us not to perform but we have gone out and done the job." Despite having Roberts and Ellington in his armoury, Jewell hopes to bring in another marksman, Ade Akinbiyi from Stoke City.

Meanwhile, at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland took 15 minutes longer than Wigan to break the deadlock but in the 18th minute Stephen Elliott crossed and Marcus Stewart headed in. He wasn't finished. Stewart went on to complete his hat-trick six minutes into the second half, his second goal coming from the penalty spot and the third after the Hornets goalkeeper, Paul Jones, misjudged a long punt in the swirling wind and dropped the ball behind him leaving Stewart to prod it home.

"Stewy was much maligned at times so it was lovely to be able to take him off with half an hour left having done his job and to see him get a standing ovation," Mick McCarthy, the Black Cats' manager, said.

The striker's contract ends with the season. "The nice thing about people that are out of contract," McCarthy mused, "is that you find there's a little bit of a spark about them, you find people work harder. I'm not going to sit down and dismantle any of the work he's doing, he's brilliant, he's not insecure about his situation. Let's see where we end up, let's see what league we're in, there's no rush."

Stewart had gone but the goals kept coming. The substitute Chris Brown made it 4-0 before Bruce Dyer, a Hornets sub, scored twice. The 4-2 scoreline gave the Wearsiders a goal difference of 19.

In the play-off places, Reading slipped to fifth and have now won only 1 in 10 matches after a 3-1 reverse at Leeds United, themselves making a late dash at the top six. Rob Hulse, the striker on loan from West Bromwich Albion, scored twice. "The fans will expect that every week now," the Leeds assistant manager, Sam Ellis, quipped. "The play-offs are a hopeful, but realistic possibility."

The four other Championship games all had a whiff of relegation anxiety about them, most pungently at Home Park where Rotherham United, bottom and surely doomed, drew 1-1 with Plymouth Argyle, who are still only five points clear of the bottom three.

Coventry City are the club most in peril of being dragged into the danger zone and yesterday's 2-0 home defeat by Burnley at Highfield Road was the Sky Blues' fifth consecutive loss. "What we've got here," Coventry's latest manager, Micky Adams, surmised, "are some fine individual players and no team."

It was just the result Gillingham, one place and now just two points behind them, wanted to hear as they held Millwall to a goalless stalemate at the Priestfield Stadium. Afterwards Stan Ternent, the Gill's manager, revealed his escape strategy: "We've got 14 games left and we need to win half of them."

Cardiff City and Brighton have both been edging clear of danger but at Ninian Park the Welsh side's form looked the firmer, a Peter Thorne penalty and rare James Collins goal giving a 2-0 win.

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