Confidence trick of beating the drop rests on pressure points

The Weekend Dossier

This season Blackburn Rovers have won at Manchester United, drawn at Liverpool and beaten Arsenal. They have also lost at home to Bolton and Wolves, and shipped seven at the Emirates. Yet if Steve Kean could be forgiven for wondering which Rovers team will turn up at Molineux for today's critical relegation duel, his uncertainty will be nothing to the anxiety Terry Connor will experience in the home dug-out. His Wolves side's split personality manifests itself not from game to game but within matches.

A few weeks ago, at Loftus Road, the Old Gold started the match as a shambles, completely over-run by Queen's Park Rangers. Helped by the needless dismissal of Djibril Cissé, Wolves somehow reached half-time only a goal adrift. For the first 20 minutes after the break they were a team transformed, playing outstanding fluid football, attacking on both wings and grabbing a 2-1 lead which should have been greater. Anyone who walked into the ground at half-time would have assumed they were a top-six team.

That impression would have been dispelled by the final whistle, for Wolves spent the last quarter of the game on the rack, clinging on to victory against the 10 men only because Adel Taarabt's radar is awry this season. Wolves have produced similarly quixotic performances in other games, such as the home defeat to Aston Villa.

What can explain these contradictory displays? Confidence, and pressure. Confidence is hard to acquire, easy to lose, and often the quality which determines success in sport. Consider Tiger Woods' career, the batting of Ian Bell, Johnny Wilkin-son's kicking during the last Rugby World Cup, when he seemed to be spooked by the ball.

Wolves arrived at QPR with their self-belief in shreds after an 11-match winless run culminating in being thrashed 3-0 at home by Liverpool, a performance so abject the club chairman Steve Morgan came into the dressing room to dress down the players. Then Cissé presented them with an opportunity which then-manager Mick McCarthy urged them to take at half-time, displaying his own apparent confidence in the players by making an attacking substitution in bringing on Kevin Doyle. Crucially, as McCarthy said afterwards, Wolves scored within a minute of the re-start, infusing the team with belief.

However, after taking the lead another factor came into play: pressure. Wolves now had something to lose, something they needed to hang onto, and against 10 men they were expected to do so. They retreated deeper and deeper, handing the midfield and the initiative to QPR, and were lucky not to be punished.

If pressure cows a team of fragile belief, its absence can allow it to flourish. In Blackburn's case a lack of expectation doubtless contributed to their performances at Anfield and Old Trafford, whereas its presence weighed heavily them in the preceding defeat at home to Bolton.

Who, then, will deal with the pressure best at Molineux today, and at the Reebok, where Bolton face QPR in an equally pivotal match? Should the visiting teams both win, a three-point gap will open at the bottom, which would be a large deficit given the five clubs involved in the relegation scrap are averaging less than a point a match.

Such results are very possible as one of the bizarre aspects of this season's cellar-dwellers is that collectively they have taken more points from fewer games on the road than in front of their own support. Only Blackburn have won more points at home than away, and then the difference will be just a point if they triumph in the Black Country today.

Tactics are often the reason for teams achieving better results when away, but none of the quintet are set up to counter-attack like West Bromwich Albion, Liverpool and Aston Villa, three other teams with good away records. The real reason would appear to be an inability to deal with the pressure of hope and expectation applied by a home crowd. Thus, as well as the usual reasons (avoidance of injury, especially in defence, and the possession of goalscorers), this season's survivors may depend on which manager enables his players to withstand this pressure.

In the case of Wolves and QPR there are new faces at the helm, so far with no immediate sign of improvement. Mark Hughes has taken five points from seven matches Rangers described as "winnable" when they hired him. Connor began brightly with a 2-2 comeback draw at Newcastle, then saw his team capitulate in losing 5-0 at Fulham. The other teams have kept faith in the managers who started the season – Kean, Owen Coyle (Bolton) and Roberto Martinez (Wigan).

Connor is the least experienced but he should not lack for mental strength. He was one of the game's black pioneers, successfully coming through the ranks as a teenage striker at Leeds United at a time when their support was regarded as a fertile recruiting ground for the National Front. As a local lad, he did not experience abuse toward himself, but shared a pitch with black players who were abused by his team's fans.

Yesterday Connor attempted to take the pressure off his players by pointing out that, win or lose, there were another 10 games remaining. "People are building up the significance of this game and we know it will be big, but it is not the end of the campaign," he said. In contrast, Coyle seemed to be increasing the tension: "This is the business end of the season. We have to understand what is involved in every game and this match provides an opportunity to move out of the bottom three."

Hughes opted to stress his belief in his players, arguing that if they build on last week's performance against Everton "that will be good enough" and Kean also accentuated the positive. "I'm looking forward to it," he said. If his players believe him it might just help them win. If.

Five Asides

1 Community award will be an honour richly deserved

The Football League Awards, a glitzy night which celebrates the world's oldest league, are held tomorrow. As a judge for the PFA Player in the Community award, it will be a pleasure to see a very deserving winner take the stage. Footballers get a bad press, often deservedly, but collectively they do more work in communities than most sectors of society and the shortlisted individuals went well beyond the traditional hospital visit at Christmas. They are: David James (Bristol City), Tom Heaton (Cardiff City), Noel Hunt (Reading), Craig Noone (Brighton), Tamika Mkandawire (Millwall) and Joel Ward (Portsmouth).

2 The seat's even hotter at Notts County than Chelsea

Andre Villas-Boas's departure highlighted the managerial instability at Chelsea. Yet while Roman Abramovich is searching for his eighth manager in nine years, the Stamford Bridge dugout is not the most insecure. Notts County are on their 12th manager since Abramovich arrived in 2003. In taking 13 points from his first five matches the incumbent, Keith Curle, has made a superb start, but he could be excused some anxiety. The next most perilous hot seats are at Leicester City, QPR and Southampton, with 10 managers each in nine seasons.

3 How the Basques brought style to Old Trafford

Whatever your loyalties it was hard not to admire Athletic Bilbao at Old Trafford. Wonderful flowing football played by a team made exclusively from Basques. It showed what can be achieved with passion and good coaching. Maybe Newcastle's renewed focus on their academy will one day bear similar fruit.

4 Governing bodies are stalling on real reform

The select committee inquiry into football governance is in danger of becoming a lost opportunity. Yesterday's response by the game's authorities addressed some issues with a new regulatory body, but it disappointed overall. So poorly written it appears designed to obfuscate the issues it is clearly a product of compromise. The onus is back with sports minister Hugh Robertson to insist on changes with regard to fan involvement, club ownership and debt management.

5 Great signings enhance Arsenal's Euro chances

Arsenal signed two internationals yesterday, including the best English footballer of her generation. Yes, her generation. The return of Kelly Smith, along with that of Alex Scott, is good news for the fledgling FA Women's Super League even if it cements Arsenal's dominance. Both can play in the Champions League first leg against Gothenburg on Wednesday, when they may again show the men how it is done.

This weekend's team news...

Bolton v QPR

Odds Home 6-4; Draw 9-4; Away 15-8.

Kick-off Today, 12.45pm (Sky Sports 2; Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news Bolton await an update on Marcos Alonso (family bereavement), but Kevin Davies (knee) returns. QPR welcome back Djibril Cissé and Samba Diakité from sus-pension and Luke Young from a hamstring complaint. Adel Taarabt (hamstring) is a doubt; Fitz Hall is short of fitness.

Aston Villa v Fulham

Odds Home 6-4; Draw 9-4; Away 15-8.

Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news Aston Vill a have no new injury worries, with Darren Bent (ankle), Richard Dunne (collarbone) and Fabian Delph (ankle) long-term absentees. Ciaran Clark (knee) remains short of fitness. Aaron Hughes (calf) is a doubt for Fulham, while Steven Sidwell (hernia) remains out, but forward Bryan Ruiz returns to contention from a virus.

Chelsea v Stoke

Odds Home 2-5; Draw 7-2; Away 15-2.

Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news John Terry could feature for Chelsea for the first time in over a month after recovering from knee surgery, while fellow defender Ashley Cole (heel) is also available for Roberto di Matteo's side. Stoke manager Tony Pulis awaits updates on defender Andy Wilkinson (hamstring) and midfielder Rory Delap (hamstring).

Sunderland v Liverpool

Odds Home 3-1; Draw 12-5; Away 10-11.

Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news Lee Cattermole and Stéphane Sessègnon are both suspended for Sunderland, while Kieran Richardson (calf) is a major doubt, with Wayne Bridge standing by for his first start. For Liverpool, Steven Gerrard (hamstring) and Glen Johnson return, while Jamie Carragher continues to deputise for the injured Daniel Agger (rib).

Wolves v Blackburn

Odds Home 7-5; Draw 23-10; Away 2-1.

Kick-off Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news Roger Johnson is included in the Wolves squad despite disciplinary problems this week, while Sebastien Bassong (hamstring) and Steven Fletcher (illness) are also in contention. Karl Henry (hamstring) is out. Blackburn welcome back defenders Gaël Givet and Jason Lowe from suspension.

Everton v Tottenham

Odds Home 9-5; Draw 9-4; Away 6-4.

Kick-off Today, 5.30pm (ESPN; Highlights BBC 1, 10.30pm)

Team news Phil Jagielka, Victor Anichebe and Leon Osman are nearing returns for Everton but are unlikely to be involved, while Steven Pienaar is ineligible. Michael Dawson (ankle) and Aaron Lennon (hamstring) miss out for Spurs after picking up injuries against Stevenage in midweek, but Louis Saha (knee) and William Gallas (calf) are fit.

Manchester United v WBA

Odds Home 2-7; Draw 9-2; Away 10-1.

Kick-off Tomorrow, 2pm (Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)

Team news Chris Smalling (head) is a doubt for Manchester United after reopening a wound during Thursday's defeat to Athletic Bilbao, although Tom Cleverley (ankle) and Paul Scholes should feature. West Bromwich Albion are without Steven Reid (ankle) and Jerome Thomas (hamstring) is a doubt, but Chris Brunt (foot) could return.

Swansea v Manchester City

Odds Home 5-1; Draw 11-4; Away 8-13.

Kick-off Tomorrow, 2pm (Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)

Team news Nathan Dyer misses out for Swansea following his red card at Wigan last week, while Kemy Agust-ien (ankle) is out. Andrea Orlandi (hamstring) remains short of fitness. Manchester City are without Vincent Kompany (calf), Pablo Zabaleta (hamstring) and Carlos Tevez (fit-ness), but Micah Richards and Joleon Lescott are available.

Norwich v Wigan

Odds Home 5-6; Draw 13-5; Away 16-5.

Kick-off Tomorrow, 4pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC 2, 10pm)

Team news Daniel Ayala and Marc Tierney (groin) again miss out for Norwich, along with James Vaughan (hamstring), but Ryan Bennett is in contention. Wigan are without David Jones (knee), but Victor Moses, Mohamed Diame and Hugo Rodallega may return.

Arsenal v Newcastle

Odds Home 4-9; Draw 100-30; Away 13-2.

Kick-off Monday, 8pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights Sky Sports 1, 12am, Tuesday)

Team news Andre Santos is in contention to return to the Arsenal squad for the first time since December, while Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey are also involved. For Newcastle, Peter Lovenkrands (thigh) has been ruled out for the rest of the season, but Shola Ameobi (illness) has recovered.

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