Monday, 14 April 2014

The Season 2013/14: Title tilts towards Anfield

THE SEASON 2013/14

1 LIVERPOOL (P34 W24 D5 L5 F93 A42 Pts 77)
Run-in: 20-Apr Norwich City (A), 27-Apr Chelsea (H), 03-May Crystal Palace (A), 11-May Newcastle United (H)
FA Cup: lost 1-2 v Arsenal (A) in fifth round
League Cup: lost 0-1 v Manchester United (A) in third round
Top scorer: Luis Suarez (29)
Liverpool took a giant leap towards their first league title for 24 years with a 10th straight win in a dramatic 3-2 win over Manchester City at Anfield. The Reds began in their typical attacking style, which had brought them 90 goals before yesterday, with Raheem Sterling outfoxing Vincent Kompany and Joe Hart for the opener before Martin Skrtel's excellent glanced header for 2-0 after just 26 minutes. But, while Liverpool's attacking prowess is unmatched this season, the defence has conceded more goals than Crystal Palace - and Man City were back in the game with two goals shortly after half time. Having steadied the ship, the Reds then struck a massive blow with 12 minutes left when Brazilian youngster Philippe Coutinho fired into the bottom corner. Liverpool had won a titanic battle and, as tearful captain Steven Gerrard rallied his players at the end of the game, it had clearly begun to sunk in that four more wins will definitely win the title. Dangerously, Chelsea are one of those four opponents - but the fixture falls right in the middle of the Blues' two-legged Champions League semi final. The match is also at Anfield where, thanks to the brilliant form of strike-pair Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, Brendan Rodgers' men have dropped just five points all season.
2 CHELSEA (P34 W23 D6 L5 F66 A24 Pts 75)
Run-in: 20-Apr Sunderland (H), 27-Apr Liverpool (A), 03-May Norwich City (H), 11-May Cardiff City (A)
FA Cup: lost 0-2 v Manchester City (A) in fifth round
League Cup: lost 1-2 aet v Sunderland (A) in fifth round
Europe: SF v Atletico Madrid (A) on 22-Apr/(H) on 30-Apr
Top scorer: Eden Hazard (17)
Chelsea kept up the pressure on leaders Liverpool ahead of their match at Anfield on 27 April - but their 1-0 victory at ten-man Swansea City was not exactly thrill-a-minute stuff. At least it was a win for the Blues, though, as it ended a run of three successive away defeats in all competitions to Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Paris Saint-Germain. Former Newcastle United striker Demba Ba scored the vital goal against Paris, and the Senegalese was at it again midway through the second half against the struggling Swans. With a European Cup semi final against Atletico Madrid already booked, Chelsea can also look forward to a run-in which, outside of the tussle at Anfield, is actually pretty kind. Although they will be fighting hard for their Premier League status, Sunderland, Norwich City and Cardiff City are all currently in the bottom four for a reason - and so the title race is not over by a long stretch. Indeed, the Blues need only land one of the big two prizes for this to have been another pretty special season for the self-proclaimed Special One, Jose Mourinho.

3 MANCHESTER CITY (P32 W22 D4 L6 F86 A32 Pts 70)
Run-in: 16-Apr Sunderland (H), 21-Apr West Bromwich Albion (H), 27-Apr Crystal Palace (A), 03-May Everton (A), 07-May Aston Villa (H), 11-May West Ham United (H)
FA Cup: lost 1-2 v Wigan Athletic (H) in QF
League Cup: won 3-1 v Sunderland at Wembley in Final
Europe: lost 1-4 on agg v Barcelona (0-2h, 1-2a) in Last 16
Top scorer: Sergio Aguero (26)
Manchester City slipped seven points adrift of leaders Liverpool after a sixth league defeat of the season, with this one being easily the most costly of all. City's two games in hand against Sunderland and Aston Villa are both eminently winnable but the Reds' lead at the top has nullified the advantage of having the extra games. Yes, with the League Cup already sealed up, City will definitely win more than their potless Manchester rivals this season - but, having poured hundreds of millions of pounds into the team, the season can only be considered a disappointment if that is the only thing they do win. And, while the defeat at Anfield may end up being the most costly because of the direct advantage which it gives Liverpool, Manuel Pellegrini need only look at four losses in the first 11 games to see where his team lost this title, which would still only be City's second since 1967.

4 EVERTON (P33 W19 D9 L5 F53 A31 Pts 66)
Run-in: 16-Apr Crystal Palace (H), 20-Apr Manchester United (H), 26-Apr Southampton (A), 03-May Manchester City (H), 11-May Hull City (A)
FA Cup: lost 1-4 v Arsenal (A) in QF
League Cup: lost 1-2 v Fulham (A) in third round
Top scorer: Romelu Lukaku (13)
Everton equalled their club record of seven wins in a row against Sunderland on Saturday to leapfrog Arsenal into fourth having beaten the Gunners 3-0 the weekend before. The Toffees found it surprisingly tougher going against rock-bottom Sunderland with only a Wes Brown own goal separating the sides at the final whistle. But, oddly enough, the Black Cats are one of only five sides to beat Everton in the league this season, and the only one at Goodison. Nevertheless, the many draws of earlier in the campaign have now turned into a string of wins - and the Merseysiders have now broken their record for the most points in a season in the Premier League era by surpassing the 65 points they managed in 2007-08. It may be difficult to stay in a Champions League place given that Arsenal do not have to play either Manchester club in the run-in and Everton face both. Regardless of where they end up, though, former Wigan Athletic boss Roberto Martinez will be able to reflect on a fine first season at the club.

5 ARSENAL (P33 W19 D7 L7 F56 A40 Pts 64)
Run-in: 15-Apr West Ham United (H), 19-Apr Hull City (A), 28-Apr Newcastle United (H), 03-May West Bromwich Albion (H), 11-May Norwich City (A)
FA Cup: Final v Hull City at Wembley on 17-May
League Cup: lost 0-2 v Chelsea (H) in fourth round
Europe: lost 1-3 on agg v Bayern Munich (0-2h, 1-1a) in Last 16
Top scorer: Olivier Giroud (19)
Arsene Wenger breathed a huge sigh of relief at full time on Saturday as Arsenal scraped through their FA Cup semi final against Wigan Athletic on penalties. Despite being cup holders, Wigan are also a Championship side so when they still held the lead with 10 minutes left, it looked as if this was going to be yet another one of those days for the Gunners. But Per Mertesacker spared his side's blushes to make up for giving away the penalty from which Wigan took the lead - and, in the shootout, Arsenal were far more composed. Still, the wild celebrations afterwards have been criticised in some quarters as a sign of the level of where Arsenal are, following a run of just three league wins in 11 games since the end of January. That poor form has seen the Gunners drop well out of the title race which they had led through the autumn and beyond Christmas, and now they are even outside the top four because of Everton's good form. Nevertheless, a better set of fixtures than the Merseysiders should mean Wenger's men make it to UEFA's elite competition for the 17th year in a row and they should also win a first trophy for nine years in the Cup Final against Hull City. There is no such thing as a certainty in football, though - and even less so when it comes to Arsenal.  

6 TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR (P34 W18 D6 L10 F48 A48 Pts 60)
Run-in: 19-Apr Fulham (H), 26-Apr Stoke City (A), 03-May West Ham United (A), 11-May Aston Villa (H)
FA Cup: lost 0-2 v Arsenal (A) in third round
League Cup: lost 1-2 v West Ham United (H) in fifth round
Europe: lost 3-5 on agg v Benfica (1-3h, 2-2a) in Last 16 Europa League
Top scorer: Emmanuel Adebayor (13)
Mystery continues to shroud the future of Tottenham Hotspur manager Tim Sherwood who effectively talked his way into an 18-month contract following the departure of Andre Villas-Boas after a 5-0 home drubbing against Liverpool in December. Sherwood started well - better than any Tottenham manager before, in fact, by winning five of his first six games. But, over a longer period of time, the same vulnerabilities have been exposed, with Spurs still losing heavily to the title challengers Manchester City (1-5), Liverpool (0-4) and Chelsea (0-4) under his watch. Also, a further duo of defeats to North London rivals Arsenal - 2-0 in the FA Cup Third Round and 1-0 in the league - have ended the chance of any real progress in a season in which £105m was spent on seven new players in the summer. Of course, £85m of that came from the sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid - but how Tottenham must wish they had that extra little spark back in their team now. The completely even goal difference for a top six side says a lot - and, if Dutch manager Louis van Gaal is to replace Sherwood after the World Cup, he will find there is much work to do.

7 MANCHESTER UNITED (P33 W17 D6 L10 F55 A38 Pts 57)
Run-in: 20-Apr Everton (A), 26-Apr Norwich City (H), 03-May Sunderland (H), 06-May Hull City (H), 11-May Southampton (A)
FA Cup: lost 1-2 v Swansea City (H) in third round
League Cup: lost 1-2 on pens after 3-3 agg v Sunderland (1-2a, 2-1h) in semi final
Europe: lost 2-4 on agg v Bayern Munich (1-1h, 1-3a) in QF
Top scorer: Wayne Rooney/Robin van Persie (17)
Manchester United must face up to the reality that there will not be any Champions League football at Old Trafford in 2014-15 after being dumped out of Europe by Bayern Munich last week. It completes a miserable first season at the club for manager David Moyes whose troubled reign reached its nadir when a flypast calling for his dismissal flew overhead during the game against Aston Villa. Of course, the Red Devils won that match 4-1 and then hit another four goals against Newcastle United a week later - but the successive 3-0 home defeats to Liverpool and Manchester City in March will not be so easily forgotten. It meant for the first time ever that both clubs completed the double over Man United - and, while their two bitterest rivals fight it out for the title, Moyes' defending champions are left battling it out with Tottenham Hotspur for the final European spot. Yes, it was always going to be a tough act following Sir Alex Ferguson but it should it really have ever come to this?

8 SOUTHAMPTON (P34 W13 D9 L12 F50 A45 Pts 48)
Run-in: 19-Apr Aston Villa (A), 26-Apr Everton (H), 03-May Swansea City (A), 11-May Manchester United (H)
FA Cup:
lost 0-1 v Sunderland (A) in fifth round
League Cup: lost 1-2 v Sunderland (A) in fourth round
Top scorer: Jay Rodriguez (17)
Buoyed by a trinity of English forwards - Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and top scorer Jay Rodriguez - Southampton recovered well from their mid-season slump to go eight league and cup games unbeaten in January and February. But there is still room for improvement at St Mary's as the two disappointing cup exits to rock-bottom Sunderland and the poor defeat to Cardiff City on Saturday demonstrate. Now deprived of the unfortunate Rodriguez, who will miss any chance of a World Cup selection following an anterior cruciate knee ligament injury, the Saints can still look forward to reaching a half-century of points in the top flight for the first time since 2003 if they can manage one more win. Indeed, the south coast club remain an impressive work in progress.

9 NEWCASTLE UNITED (P34 W14 D4 L16 F38 A52 Pts 46)
Run-in: 19-Apr Swansea City (H), 28-Apr Arsenal (A), 03-May Cardiff City (H), 11-May Liverpool (A)
FA Cup:
lost 1-2 v Cardiff City (H) in third round
League Cup: lost 0-2 aet v Manchester City (H) in fourth round
Top scorer: Loïc Remy (13)
The tide has finally turned against manager Alan Pardew after Newcastle United slipped to a fourth successive defeat on Saturday with the only surprise perhaps being that it was not by a margin of more than one goal. Nevertheless, a 16th league defeat of the season allowed their hosts Stoke City to close to within three points - and the Magpies, who were sixth at Christmas, will now simply do well to remain in the top-half. After all, the goal difference is very much bottom half standard thanks to the second half of the season. A calamitous series of defeats in February - 3-0 to Sunderland, 3-0 to Everton and 4-0 to Tottenham Hotspur - were followed by a slight recovery, only for there then to be another even more calamitous trio of reverses - 3-0 to Everton, 4-0 to Southampton and 4-0 to Manchester United. Indeed, Newcastle have now lost 11 of their last 16 league games, and failed to score in 12 of those matches, a run of form coinciding with suspension and injury to top scorer Loïc Remy. The Frenchman does not even belong to Newcastle, though, and he is unlikely to stay beyond the end of this campaign, leaving next year barely worth thinking about at this stage.

10 STOKE CITY (P34 W11 D10 L13 F38 A48 Pts 43)
Run-in: 19-Apr Cardiff City (A), 26-Apr Tottenham Hotspur (H), 03-May Fulham (H), 11-May West Bromwich Albion (A)
FA Cup: lost 0-1 v Chelsea (A) in fourth round
League Cup: lost 0-2 v Manchester United (H) in fifth round
Top scorer: Peter Crouch (10)
Huge credit must go to Mark Hughes whose first season at the Britannia Stadium remains well on target to become Stoke City's first top-10 finish in the top flight since 1975. Of course, things did not look too clever after a run of just one point from 15 had dropped the Potters to 16th at the end of January. But a first win against Manchester United since 1984 in front of the boisterous home support lifted spirits and, since then, Stoke have only lost away at Manchester City and Chelsea. Indeed, the only home defeat of the calendar year came against the other title challengers, Liverpool, back in January. If anything, though, it was the stylish 4-1 away win over Aston Villa a few weeks ago which best showed off Stoke's progress this season. 

11 WEST HAM UNITED (P33 W10 D7 L16 F37 A44 Pts 37) 
Run-in: 15-Apr Arsenal (A), 19-Apr Crystal Palace (H), 26-Apr West Bromwich Albion (A), 03-May Tottenham Hotspur (H), 11-May Manchester City (A) 
FA Cup:
lost 0-5 v Nottingham Forest (A) in third round
League Cup: lost 0-9 agg v Manchester City (0-6a, 0-3h) in semi final
Top scorer: Kevin Nolan (7)
West Ham United put their worrying form at the turn of the year behind them with a fabulous February which landed Sam Allardyce his first Manager of the Month award in over seven years. Out of both domestic cups to heavy defeats, and having also slipped into the bottom three in the league, the Hammers' turning point came in a 0-0 at Stamford Bridge at the end of January. Further clean sheets followed against Swansea City, Aston Villa and Norwich City - all of which were 2-0 victories - before a fourth successive win against Southampton (3-1). There was then a run of three losses to Everton, Stoke City and Manchester United - but another two wins over Hull City and Sunderland mean West Ham fans can breathe easily in the run-in.

12 CRYSTAL PALACE (P33 W11 D4 L18 F24 A39 Pts 37)
Run-in: 16-Apr Everton (A), 19-Apr West Ham United (A), 27-Apr Manchester City (H), 05-May Liverpool (H), 11-May Fulham (A)   
FA Cup:
lost 1-2 v Wigan Athletic (A) in fourth round
League Cup: lost 1-2 v Bristol City (A) in second round
Top scorer: Marouane Chamakh/Jason Puncheon (6)
Faced with a fifth immediate relegation from the Premier League after just one win and no draws from the first 10 games, Crystal Palace turned to the wily Tony Pulis following Ian Holloway's resignation - and what an inspired choice! Since the Welshman's arrival at the end of November, the Eagles have had the eighth-best league record and kept nine clean sheets including three in their last three games. Each of those have been victories - over Chelsea (1-0), Cardiff City (3-0) and Aston Villa (1-0) - and that little streak has surely just about got Palace to the safety line. Strong at Selhurst Park, the south Londoners have attained 12th place despite a Premier League low of 24 goals. Then again, seven of Palace's wins have been by a 1-0 scoreline.

13 HULL CITY (P33 W10 D6 L17 F34 A40 Pts 36)
Run-in: 19-Apr Arsenal (H), 26-Apr Fulham (A), 03-May Aston Villa (A), 06-May Manchester United (A), 11-May Everton (H)
FA Cup: Final v Arsenal at Wembley on 17 May
League Cup: lost 7-8 on pens (after 2-2 aet) v Tottenham Hotspur (A) in fourth round
Top scorer: Matty Fryatt (5)
What a brilliant season this has been for Hull City! Just about safe in the league after beating Swansea City at home just over a week ago, the Tigers now have a post-season ball to attend with Arsenal on 17 May - the club's first-ever FA Cup Final. Of course, if the match is even half as dramatic as their 5-3 semi final win over third-tier Sheffield United, manager Steve Bruce might spontaneously combust - and that might just happen with Hull now providing increasingly good value. Despite the inconsistencies which come naturally with a team in its first season back in the top flight, Bruce has done well to act decisively on the lack of goals up until January by recruiting Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long. As expected, neither of them have been especially prolific - but their three league goals apiece have often come at vital times - though, as both are cup-tied, the run to Wembley shows there are actually goals right across this team.

14 ASTON VILLA (P33 W9 D7 L17 F35 A49 Pts 34)
Run-in: 19-Apr Southampton (H), 26-Apr Swansea City (A), 03-May Hull City (H), 07-May Manchester City (A), 11-May Tottenham Hotspur (A)  
FA Cup:
lost 1-2 v Sheffield United (H) in third round
League Cup: lost 0-4 v Tottenham Hotspur (H) in third round
Top scorer: Christian Benteke (11)
Expected to be a season of progress after last year's struggle, things have turned very sour at Villa Park for manager Paul Lambert. The 1-0 defeat at Crystal Palace was a fourth successive loss and saw Aston Villa's opponents go above them - not so worrying in isolation but certainly a desperate cause for concern when part of a growing pattern. For, in December too, Villa lost four games in a row - scoring once - while, in February, the Midlanders took just one point from four games and again scored just once in those matches. Some of the worst performances have been reserved for the home crowd with 10 league defeats at home adding to nine from last season and eight the year before that. And, while there is still the occasional stunning win, like the recent 1-0 beating of Chelsea, Lambert looks largely clueless when top scorer Christian Benteke is out injured.   
15 SWANSEA CITY (P34 W8 D9 L17 F45 A50 Pts 33)
Run-in: 19-Apr Newcastle United (A), 26-Apr Aston Villa (H), 03-May Southampton (H), 11-May Sunderland (A)
FA Cup: lost 1-3 v Everton (A) on fifth round
League Cup: lost 1-3 v Birmingham City (A) in third round
Europe: lost 1-3 on agg v Napoli (0-0h, 1-3a) in Last 32 Europa League
Top scorer: Wilfried Bony (20)
Having coped with second season syndrome admirably by winning the League Cup and finishing top half, third time has certainly not been a charm for Swansea City. The Welsh club slipped to a 17th league defeat of the season against Chelsea yesterday to remain deep in trouble at the wrong end of the Premier League table in the same season in which they beat Valencia 3-0 at the Mestalla. Those days already seem long ago now, though, with the lack of goals and lack of confidence evident in having drawn a blank in their last two outings. Still happy to dominate possession under new manager Garry Monk, the Swans desperately need to find a cutting edge outside of the talent of top scorer Wilfried Bony to win two of their last four games. Fortunately for Monk's men, the fixtures do not look too daunting with the woefully out-of-form Newcastle United up next.  

16 WEST BROMWICH ALBION (P33 W6 D15 L12 F40 A51 Pts 33)
Run-in: 21-Apr Manchester City (A), 26-Apr West Ham United (H), 04-May Arsenal (A), 07-May Sunderland (A), 11-May Stoke City (H)
FA Cup: lost 0-2 v Crystal Palace (H) in third round
League Cup: lost 3-4 on pens (after 1-1 aet) v Arsenal (H) in third round
Top scorer: Saido Berahino (8)
Draw specialists West Bromwich Albion remain deep in relegation trouble - and the Baggies have no-one to blame but themselves. Yes, a run of three unbeaten games at this stage of the season is precious enough - but it really could have been so much better than five points over the past two weeks for the Midlands club. First, just over two weeks ago, Thievy Bifouma scored in the 94th minute to put West Brom 3-2 up against relegation rivals Cardiff City, only for Mats Moller Daehli to equalise even later for the Welsh club. And now, just this weekend gone, the Hawthorns bore witness to a second 3-3 draw - but only after the home side had blitzed into a three-goal lead against Tottenham Hotspur. Those dropped points could prove vital in the final reckoning although Pepe Mel's side still have a couple of winnable home games against mid-table clubs in the run-in.  

17 NORWICH CITY (P34 W8 D8 L18 F26 A53 Pts 32)
Run-in: 20-Apr Liverpool (H), 26-Apr Manchester United (A), 04-May Chelsea (A), 11-May Arsenal (H)
FA Cup:
lost 0-3 v Fulham (A) in third round replay, following 1-1
League Cup: lost 0-4 v Manchester United (A) in fourth round
Top scorer: Gary Hooper (7)
Norwich City are perilously close to going down - not only my perspective but even that of their new manager Neil Adams which is surely never good to hear. In their first game since replacing Chris Hughton at a ridiculously late stage of the season, the Canaries lost 1-0 to Fulham on Saturday, allowing their opponents to move within two points of them. And, now City must get some sort of result in their final four fixtures - each of which come against teams in the top seven. It really is looking forlorn for the East Anglians having hit just 26 all season and none in their last three games. Of course, much of the blame for that lies squarely on the shoulders of £8.5m striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel who scored on the opening day - and then not at all since. But, harsh as it may sound, Norwich have a squad chock full of players who will always struggle at this level.   

18 FULHAM (P34 W9 D3 L22 F34 A74 Pts 30)
Run-in: 19-Apr Tottenham Hotspur (A), 26-Apr Hull City (H), 03-May Stoke City (A), 11-May Crystal Palace (H)   
FA Cup: lost 0-1 aet v Sheffield United (H) in fourth round replay
League Cup: lost 3-4 v Leicester City (A) in fourth round
Top scorer: Steve Sidwell (7)
Almost two-thirds of Fulham's league games this season have ended in defeat but, amazingly, the Cottagers still have a pretty good chance of staying up after victory in the biggest six-pointer of the season so far against Norwich City. Following his late winner last week against Aston Villa, Colombian Hugo Rodallega struck just before half time against the Canaries to put the west Londoners within two points of their opponents - and with a better set of fixtures in the run-in. Going through three managers and a heap of players usually spells disaster for a club in a Premier League season but Fulham have proven to be the exception in a relegation battle before - and, in the demanding German Felix Magath, the club's new owner Shahid Khan appears to have made a better choice than when René Meulensteen was briefly in charge.

19 CARDIFF CITY (P34 W7 D8 L19 F30 A64 Pts 29)
Run-in: 19-Apr Stoke City (H), 27-Apr Sunderland (A), 03-May Newcastle United (A), 11-May Chelsea (H)
FA Cup: lost 1-2 v Wigan Athletic (H) in fifth round
League Cup: lost 2-3 v West Ham United (A) in third round
Top scorer: Fraizer Campbell (9)
Cardiff City kept their hopes alive of surviving in their debut Premier League season after sneaking a 1-0 win away at Southampton thanks to Juan Cala's second half strike. But the Bluebirds remain exactly where they started the day - down in 19th place - having failed to win consecutive league matches all season. Nevertheless, the Welsh club have largely stayed in touch with those above them and a little run now would most likely keep them up, something which would be a decent achievement by Ole Gunnar Solskjær in his first assignment in England. Their run-in fixtures would certainly seem to offer the opportunity to string a few wins together - but, if Cardiff ultimately do fail, they need only back to the vital Christmas period where they took just one point from 21 while the Malky Mackay's ill-fated position as manager remained totally in flux. The lack of a genuine goalscorer has been a major weakness all season long - midfielder Jordan Mutch is top Premier League scorer with seven.

20 SUNDERLAND (P32 W6 D7 L19 F29 A54 Pts 25)
Run-in: 16-Apr Manchester City (A), 20-Apr Chelsea (A), 27-Apr Cardiff City (H), 03-Apr Manchester United (A), 07-May West Bromwich Albion (H), 11-May Swansea City (H)   
FA Cup:
lost 0-3 v Hull City (A) on QF
League Cup: lost 1-3 v Manchester City at Wembley in Final
Top scorer: Adam Johnson (10)
Following just one point from their last eight games, Sunderland have now matched their wretched run from the start of the season which saw unpredictable fascist Paulo di Canio replaced by Gus Poyet. And, with Manchester City away and Chelsea away next on the fixture list, it is difficult to see the gloom over Wearside lifting any time soon. That trip to Wembley at the end of February for a first Cup final since 1992 seems a long time ago now and, while Poyet's men still have games in hand as a result of their creditable cup exploits, they are also running out of games - and fast. A fourth relegation from the top flight since 1997 beckons then although, at least for their sake, the Black Cats will depart having completed a first league double over north east rivals Newcastle United since 1967.

Already promoted: Leicester City
Leicester City edged their way to the Championship title with their 90th point of the season coming in a hard-fought 1-1 draw away at Reading tonight. The Foxes were beaten in the playoff semi finals in heartbreaking fashion last season but came back stronger in this campaign, the highlight of which was a 21-match unbeaten run featuring nine straight wins.
Burnley also failed to win at the weekend, going down 1-0 at home to Middlesbrough for only their second home defeat of the season - although, like buses, they have come together. Nevertheless, Sean Dyche's Clarets remain in good shape for a return to the top flight as they still sit eight points clear of the chasing pack with just four games left.
Steve McClaren's Derby County therefore look like they will have settle for the playoffs alongside Harry Redknapp's big-spending Queens Park Rangers. The other two places are not as easy to predict but Wigan Athletic are in pole position for one of them if they can recover from their FA Cup exertions while the Latics' next opponents Reading slipped into sixth on goal difference ahead of Brighton & Hove Albion and Ipswich Town. Bournemouth, in ninth, are the real surprise package in the division, and have a genuine chance of extending their season, as they sit just two points off sixth following a recent six-game winning run. 
At the other end of the table, Barnsley are currently bottom but are level on points with Yeovil Town have a game in hand against fellow strugglers Charlton Athletic. Nevertheless, the Tykes have much work to do as they - and the Glovers - are four points adrift of Millwall who are third bottom and five away from Charlton.
Early season leaders Blackpool had a truly awful run of 17 games without a win between December and March, and remain in trouble just two points above the drop zone - while neither Doncaster Rovers nor Birmingham City will feel safe yet, sitting as they do just a point further clear.

Already promoted: Wolverhampton Wanderers
Wolverhampton Wanderers ensured their first sojourn at the third level of English football in 25 years would not extended beyond a single season after gaining promotion on Saturday by beating Crewe Alexandra 2-0. Kenny Jackett's men suffered a wobble over the Christmas period but have won 14 and lost just one of their 17 fixtures since 11th January.
Brentford look likely to join the Midlanders in the Championship despite a 1-0 defeat at Swindon Town at the weekend. With four games left, the Bees remain seven points clear of third-placed Leyton Orient who recorded a stunning 5-1 win over Gillingham to leapfrog Rotherham United. The Millers had drawn 0-0 in a Yorkshire derby with Bradford City on Friday night.
Preston North End also celebrated the certainty of a top six finish with a 6-1 thumping of struggling Carlisle United, while Football League Trophy winners Peterborough United remain favourites for the final playoff spot after a 1-0 win over Coventry City.
At the bottom, Stevenage are beginning to run out of the games and Shrewsbury Town remain two points adrift though with a better goal difference than most of the clubs immediately above them. Crewe and Carlisle currently fill the other two relegation places but they are level on 43 points with Notts County with Tranmere Rovers and Colchester United only a further three points further ahead.

Scunthorpe United moved to the top of the ever-changing League Two table after a 2-2 draw with Bury extended their unbeaten run to an amazing 26 league games. The Iron, on 76 points, are a point ahead of second-placed Rochdale who have hit a roadblock at the worst time of the season after failing to score in the last three games. Chesterfield are in the third automatic spot on 74 points after victory at Hartlepool United at the weekend.
Then there is a gap to Fleetwood Town in fourth on 69 points and Burton Albion in fifth on 68 - and then another gap to Southend United and Oxford United in the last two playoff spots on 62 points. York City, unbeaten in 13, are just outside the top seven on 61 - but Plymouth Argyle's hopes have faded after a third defeat in four on Saturday.
Fellow Devon outfit Torquay United look even more forlorn, still seven points adrift at the bottom despite a 2-1 win over Bristol Rovers. The gap to Northampton Town remains after the Cobblers won 1-0 for a second week in a row - but at least that means several other teams have been dragged into the scrap. Wycombe Wanderers are now outside of the drop zone on goal difference only while Bristol Rovers, Exeter City, Morecambe, Hartlepool - and even Accrington Stanley on 50 points - have no guarantees of playing in the Football League next season.

Already relegated: Hyde, Tamworth
The champagne remains on ice at Luton Town after the Hatters were beaten 3-2 by Braintree Town in an early Saturday kick-off. But, even though second-placed Cambridge United took full advantage of the slip-up with a 7-2 thrashing of rock-bottom Hyde, Luton's lead remains a steady 10 points with four games remaining.
Cambridge are at least certain of a playoff spot and Grimsby Town, in third, look set to join them. The final two spots - currently occupied by Gateshead, on 71 points, and Halifax Town on 70 - look less clear cut with Braintree, on 68, still threatening after their shock win at Kenilworth Road. Seventh-placed Alfreton Town, on 66 points, are also still in contention but they are hamstrung by a negative goal difference and poor form.
At the bottom, Hyde have won just once - 2-0 away at Welling United in January - and recorded just 10 points all season. That is a massive 23 points adrift of second-bottom Tamworth whose own relegation was confirmed on Saturday after a 2-0 reverse at Southport made it just one point from their last 27. The last two spots will go to the wire though, with Dartford, on 44 points, and Hereford United, on 45, chasing down Aldershot Town, also on 45, and Chester, on 49. All of those teams have just three games left.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Grand National: Pineau De Re wins before riders' revolt

PINEAU DE RE won the 167th staging of the Grand National at Aintree before jockeys refused to attend a stewards' inquiry following a false start.

On a typically dramatic afternoon on Merseyside, the 11-year-old - priced at 25-1 - took advantage of many of the leading lights falling out of the running surprisingly early.

But, even before they were off, there was chaos as a false start brought back memories of the 1993 National that never was.

The jockeys had approached the tape before the starter had invited them to do so, knocking down his assistant. Then there was the false start.

Eventually, 39 runners and riders took part in the contest with only Brendan Powell - the rider of Battle Group - not involved, because his horse planted itself and would not approach the start.

It was proof, if it was further required, that if a horse really does not want to run, it will downright ensure that it doesn't - and there is nothing the jockey can do about it.

Away second time, with Teaforthree and AP McCoy's Double Seven as 10-1 joint favourites, rank outsider Twirling Magnet was first to fall.

It was not long, though, before some of the more fancied horses also dropped out of the running with Burton Port unseating his rider at the second before Big Shu fell at the open ditch third.

Across The Bay led the field over Becher's, where Last Time D'Albain unseated his rider - and there were three who could not make the Canal Turn successfully including the mount of Sam Twiston-Davies, Tidal Bay. 

Another three horses were out of the running on the next fence, Valentine's, including former Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Long Run, ridden by amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen.

Then, at fence 15 - the Chair - Teaforthree unseated his rider Nick Scholfield.

Across The Bay had held onto the lead throughout the first circuit but he lost it in dramatic fashion after being driven wide by a loose horse who then crashed through a side railing.

Rocky Creek, eventually fifth, took up the front from Mr Moonshine and AP McCoy's horse Double Seven, leading them over Becher's for the second time as One In A Milan fell.

At this point, Pineau De Re was still having a quiet race - and was barely being mentioned in the commentary.

But timing is everything in the National and, as they approached the last two obstacles, the eventual winner had moved onto the shoulder of Rocky Creek. 

Pineau De Re jumped it in front as Rocky Creek began to tire with runner-up Balthazar King, Double Seven and Alvarado passing him on the approach to the finish.

At the Elbow, Pineau De Re had stretched his lead to a convincing six lengths and was never in danger of being caught, eventually officially winning by five.

Once again then, the National delivered on the side of sporting romance. Never mind the race that never was, this was almost the victory that never was for jockey Leighton Aspell.

The 37-year-old had even retired a few years ago, the highlight of his career having been a second-placed National finish on Supreme Glory in his debut in the race 11 years ago.

But, within 12 months, Aspell realised he had unfinished business - and the Irishman was right.

Yes, the jockeys' dispute is a story with some legs yet, particularly as they seem unanimous in their decision and yet the reason behind their refusal to attend the inquiry remains unclear.

Paul Struthers, the chief executive of the Professional Jockeys' Association, said: "All of them were in agreement that they weren't to go back in. I can't go into the specifics. We need to go into it a little bit more ourselves.

"I wouldn't want to go into the reasons why they were unhappy but they were very unhappy with the conduct of the inquiry and therefore refused to go back in."

Whatever happens from now with that, though, Aspell can take a back seat regardless - and enjoy a deep sense of satisfaction having landed the big one at last.

Aintree, 4.15pm (Channel 4)
1stPINEAU DE RELeighton Aspell25/1
2ndBalthazar KingRichard Johnson14/1
3rdDouble SevenAP McCoy10/1 JF
4thAlvaradoPaul Moloney33/1
5thRocky CreekNoel Fehily16/1

Other finishers
6th Chance Du Roy (33/1), 7th Monbeg Dude (16/1), 8th Raz De Maree (50/1), 9th Swing Bill (66/1), 10th Kruzhlinin (100/1), 11th Buckers Bridge (66/1), 12th The Package (14/1), 13th Vesper Bell (40/1), 14th Across The Bay (50/1), 15th Mr Moonshine (20/1), 16th Prince De Beauchene (20/1), 17th Hunt Ball (50/1), 18th Hawkes Point (50/1)

Failed to finish
Start Battle Group (refused)
1 Twirling Magnet (fell)
2 Burton Port (unseated rider)
3 Big Shu (fell)
6 (Becher's) Last Time D'Albain (unseated rider)
8 (Canal Turn) Tidal Bay (unseated rider), Our Father (unseated rider), Golan Way (fell)
9 (Valentine's) Long Run (fell), Mountainous (fell), The Rainbow Hunter (unseated rider)
15 (The Chair) Teaforthree (unseated rider)
20 Shakalakaboomboom (pulled up)
21 Quito De La Roque (pulled up)
22 (Becher's) One In A Milan (fell), Tricolo D'Alene (pulled up)
25 (Valentine's) Colbert Station (pulled up)
26 Rose of the Moon (fell), Vintage Star (pulled up)
27 Líon Na Bearnaí (pulled up)
28 Wayward Prince (fell)
29 Walkon (pulled up)

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Farage to the forefront after Europe debate

26 MarchNigel Farage UKIP57%
LBC/SkyNick Clegg Lib Dems36%

Don't know7%
2 AprilNigel Farage UKIP68% (+11%)
BBCNick Clegg Lib Dems27% (-9%)

Don't know5% (-2%)

UKIP leader Nigel Farage scored a major victory over his Liberal Democrat counterpart Nick Clegg in the second debate on the European Union, hosted by the BBC last night.

Instant polling after the event by Yougov gave Mr Farage a big victory over Mr Clegg by an even more decisive margin than last week.

That should not really come as a surprise as, compared the first debate on LBC Radio and Sky, this match-up was a far more feisty and divisive affair from the start.

Mr Clegg began by accusing Mr Farage of an "absolutely indefensible" stance in favour of Russian President Vladimir Putin in respect of Syria and Ukraine.

In response, Mr Farage told the Deputy Prime Minister that he was "wilfully lying to the people" of Britain by stating only 7% of British laws came from Europe.

The UKIP leader suggested instead that the actual figure was closer to 75%, although the whole truth and nothing but the truth lies somewhere in between.

Overall, though, it was definitely Mr Farage who made the better impression in front of the cameras.

Mr Clegg was seen as overcompensating for a reserved performance in the first innings by looking to smear his opponent on Putin, and coming across as rather too shouty for his own good.

The move has appeared to have backfired stunningly with even one-third of Lib Dems and half of pro-European voters agreeing that Mr Farage had won.

It was yet another watershed for UKIP which holds the slightly odd distinction of being definitively now part of the British political mainstream, despite not having a single MP in Westminster.

Indeed, it is exactly that fact which continues to help UKIP, the faux anti-establishmentarianism being emphasised by Mr Farage in his closing speech.

Undoubtedly, then, UKIP can be happy with its decision to engage in the debates ahead of the European elections on 22 May.

Encouragingly for Mr Farage, 38% of viewers are now more likely to vote his party, according to a Guardian/ICM poll, with only 17% less likely and 37% unmoved.

The outcome has been far less positive, of course, for the Lib Dems, although the party is correct to state Mr Clegg had a more difficult and certainly less populist position to defend.

Nevertheless, being on the defensive was pretty much the default for the Deputy PM, and he offered few positive arguments in favour of staying in the EU.

Instead, there was just as much scaremongering from Mr Clegg about the loss of jobs if Britain leaves as Mr Farage spouted about immigration if the country remains tied to Brussels.

From a tactical perspective, though, it was understandable why the Lib Dems had opted to take Mr Farage head on.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the Lib Dems - regularly in third behind UKIP in the national polls - are usually nowadays just in single figures in polling for the European elections.

As these elections use a form of proportional representation, such an outcome would mean the Lib Dems would most likely lose all 12 of their current MEPs.

It would be a total electoral disaster for Mr Clegg, worse even than some of his party's truly embarrassing by-election results in this Parliament.

So, by declaring himself as the only major party leader with an unambiguously pro-EU stance, Mr Clegg hoped to convince more of the British population who identify as being pro-European.

But the polling suggests that even this may not have worked, and some of this failure must surely be down to the way which Mr Clegg presented his arguments.

At least he turned up, though. By contrast, David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband were both conspicuous by their absence, instead choosing to trade blows earlier in the day at Prime Minister's Questions.

And, while the debate between Messrs Clegg and Farage could hardly be termed world-class, it was still quite a few levels above the pathetic playground exchanges in the House of Commons.

Of course, Mr Cameron refuses much to engage on the subject Europe, aware that doing so may expose the in-out rifts which still exist within his party.

Meanwhile, if anything, Mr Miliband is even more cautious in not wanting to give the unpopular appearance of being too pro-European while attempting to protect an increasingly fragile poll lead.

Their caution, and Mr Clegg's failure, may well play into Mr Farage's hands.

Much now depends on how much momentum the UKIP leader keeps between now and 22 May.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

World T20: Embarrassing England are the fools again

ENGLAND completed a thoroughly miserable winter with defeat to the Netherlands in their World T20 dead rubber yesterday.

Stuart Broad's side were bowled out for just 88 to lose by a humiliating 45 runs to their Associate opposition, neatly capping off a farcical last four months.

"Shambolic" and "simply dreadful" were just two of the terms which BBC correspondent Jonathan Agnew used to describe the debacle.

And, in fairness, Broad acknowledged his team had "let the fans here and English cricket fans back home down", adding: "It's been a horrendous winter."

Strangely, though, coach Ashley Giles - who has been touted to replace Andy Flower in the Test job - put the defeat down to complacency.

But that does not quite work. For, as former skipper and current Sky commentator Michael Atherton pointed out, the accusation of complacency suggests England had something to be complacent about in the first place, which is certainly not the case.

Whitewashed in the Ashes, England arrived in Bangladesh for this tournament in terrible form in the shortest form of the game, too.

It was to some surprise, then, that the 2010 champions actually performed pretty creditably in some aspects of their play in the first three matches, despite their early exit.

Denied by the vagaries of the Duckworth-Lewis method against New Zealand in their opener, England then recovered from 0-2 after one over to record their highest successful run-chase in T20 history and beat Sri Lanka by six wickets.

That kept hopes of progression alive for the third game against South Africa. This was another tightly-contested affair but the Proteas ultimately prevailed by three runs.

No blame could be apportioned to the batsmen who followed up their score of 190 against the Sri Lankans with 193 against the South Africans.

However, the death bowling in both of those games was abysmal. Jade Dernbach, in particular, had a torturous time with 26 coming off his last over against South Africa.

It was an over which effectively put England out of the tournament, giving them that little bit too much to chase.

And it also further damaged Dernbach's own stats as he now bears an economy rate which, at 8.71 runs per over, is the joint-worst in international Twenty20 history.

Nothing quite compares to what is actually a second consecutive T20 defeat to the Dutch, though.

Yes, that is two losses in a row to the Netherlands at a form of cricket - but, while the 2009 shock could be genuinely put down to a bad day at the office, the outlook now is much gloomier.

Elected to field having won the toss in an attempt to restrict the minnows, the Netherlands made a fast start to reach 32-0 after three overs.

From then on, though, England - without Dernbach - bowled better and the Associates slipped from 84-1 to 133-5 by the end of their innings.

It was an eminently gettable target - but the troubles began almost straight away with openers Michael Lumb and the hero against Sri Lanka, Alex Hales, out in consecutive overs.

Then, the run rate began to stall as wickets arrived with depressing regularity. Eoin Morgan was caught at slip before Moeen Ali lazily stroked the ball to mid-off.

England were 32-4 but, with Jos Buttler and Ravi Bopara at the crease, they still had two men who could produce individual fireworks to win the game.

It quickly became apparent, though, that this wasn't going to be the case when Buttler holed out and his replacement Tim Bresnan was comfortably run out. 52-6.

Bopara was the only recognised batsman left and the Essex man top scored with 18 before he failed with a big shot of his own. And that just left the tail whose resistance was predictably short-lived.

They could only add 14 runs for the final three wickets as James Tredwell finished the circus act in appropriate fashion in another comical run out.

With the dislodging of the bails for the final time this winter, England had hit rock bottom.

The beginning of the match report from the excellent George Dobell of Cricinfo does well to sum up the context of this humiliation.

He wrote: "There is a great deal of competition for the lowest point in the history of English cricket. 

"They have been defeated by Ireland, bowled out by a chicken farmer in Zimbabwe and whitewashed by India, West Indies and Australia. They were even knocked out of the World Cup they hosted in 1999 before the theme song was released.

"But defeat at the hands of Netherlands in Chittagong ranks among the worst of England's defeats. In a winter stuffed with setbacks and disappointment, England left the most ignominious moment until last."

Indeed, England could be said to have come full circle - 1999 was the last time it felt as bad as this with that early World Cup exit followed by a Test series defeat to New Zealand at home.

Back then, England slowly rebuilt so that, by 2004-05, a confident team under Michael Vaughan's captaincy could beat all-comers at home, including Australia for the first time in 18 years.

In between, Nasser Hussain skippered the first steps to recovery - and perhaps he could do something similar again this time.

Of course, the ECB would have to convince Hussain to leave the cosiness of the Sky studio and the in-house promotion of Giles to Test coach is much less hassle.

But that shouldn't be the determining factor in the selection of the head of the national side, and regretfully the uninspiring Giles just does not cut it.

Remember, this match effectively forms part of his portfolio for a job interview ahead of the first Test against Sri Lanka in June.

Surely, the ECB will have to look elsewhere.

Bangladesh and Netherlands qualified from preliminary tournament
Group One
22 MarChittagongSRI LANKA 165-7 beat SOUTH AFRICA 160-8 by five runs
22 Mar
NEW ZEALAND 52-1 beat ENGLAND 172-6 by nine runs (D/L)
24 Mar
SOUTH AFRICA 170-6 beat NEW ZEALAND 168-8 by two runs
24 Mar
SRI LANKA 40-1 beat NETHERLANDS 39 by nine wickets
27 Mar
SOUTH AFRICA 145-9 beat NETHERLANDS 139 by six runs
27 Mar
ENGLAND 190-4 beat SRI LANKA 189-4 by six wickets
29 Mar
NEW ZEALAND 152-4 beat NETHERLANDS 151-4 by six wickets
29 Mar
SOUTH AFRICA 196-5 beat ENGLAND 193-7 by three runs
31 Mar
NETHERLANDS 133-5 beat ENGLAND 88 by 45 runs
31 Mar
SRI LANKA 119 beat NEW ZEALAND 60 by 59 runs

Group OneWLRRPts
(Q) SRI LANKA312.236
New Zealand22-0.684

Group Two
21 MarMirpur INDIA 131-3 beat PAKISTAN 130-7 by seven wickets
23 Mar
PAKISTAN 191-5 beat AUSTRALIA 175 by 16 runs
23 Mar
INDIA 130-3 beat WEST INDIES 129-7 by seven wickets
25 Mar
WEST INDIES 171-7 beat BANGLADESH 98 by 73 runs
28 Mar
WEST INDIES 179-4 beat AUSTRALIA 178-8 by six wickets
28 Mar
INDIA 141-2 beat BANGLADESH 138-7 by eight wickets
30 Mar
PAKISTAN 190-5 beat BANGLADESH 140-7 by 50 runs
30 Mar
INDIA 159-7 beat AUSTRALIA 86 by 73 runs
1 Apr
AUSTRALIA 158-3 beat BANGLADESH 153-5 by seven wickets
1 Apr
WEST INDIES 166-6 beat PAKISTAN 82 by 84 runs

Group TwoWLRRPts
(Q) INDIA401.288
(Q) WEST INDIES311.976

Semi finals
3 AprMirpur SRI LANKA 160-6 beat WEST INDIES 80-4 by 27 runs (D/L)
4 Apr
INDIA 176-4 beat SOUTH AFRICA 172-4 by six wickets

6 AprMirpur SRI LANKA 134-4 beat INDIA 130-4 by six wickets

6 AprMirpur AUSTRALIA 106-4 beat ENGLAND 105-8 by six wickets

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Budget 2014: Osborne appeals to the Tory core

CHANCELLOR George Osborne produced a Budget aimed at attracting some of the straying core Conservative vote back from UKIP ahead of next year's general election.

Osborne described his fifth Budget as being one for "the makers, the doers and the savers" as he announced an end to tax restrictions on pensioners' access to their pension pots.

In practical terms, this means that pensioners will no longer be required to purchase an annuity, instead gaining the opportunity to a big chunk of their savings pot to spend early in their retirement.

They will have to pay income tax on that - but the taxable part of a pension pot taken as cash on retirement will be charged at normal income tax rate, usually 20%, down massively from 55%.

The policy is, however, not without concern as it opens up the possibility of pensioners frittering away their hard-earned gains, leaving themselves poorer in their final few years.

Alternatively, the argument favoured by Mr Osborne is that pensioners can be - and should be - trusted to look after their own money, and that this liberal reform of the pensions system allows them much more control of their own affairs.

For savers frustrated by low interest rates, Osborne has introduced a new tax-free ISA from 1 July which will allow investors to put in up to £15,000-a-year in either cash or shares.

Of course, having £15,000 spare is not exactly commonplace for most of us.

Nevertheless, the other big Budget measure was more helpful to the wider working population with the decision to increase the personal allowance to £10,500 from 2015.

At the beginning of the Parliament, the allowance stood at just £6,475 so there has been an increase of £4,025 in five years, something worth £805 to a 20% taxpayer.

This has been a flagship policy of the Liberal Democrats - and, while the Conservatives have attempted to take some credit for it, the Lib Dems can point towards the fact they have campaigned for this long before they were in government.

Anyway, with the increased allowance now having been implemented, Nick Clegg's beleaguered junior coalition partners at least have one genuine thing to shout about when canvassing the doorsteps. It is just about the only thing, though.

In other matters altogether, this was another decent Budget for drivers and drinkers, and there was an added bonus for bingo players.

Osborne confirmed that the planned rise in fuel duty in September had again been scrapped.

Meanwhile duty on spirits and ordinary cider was frozen. Beer duty was even cut by a penny to the obvious delight of CAMRA chief executive Mike Benner.

Mr Benner said: "CAMRA is delighted to see the Chancellor implementing an unprecedented second consecutive cut of 1p in beer duty.

"This is not only about keeping the price of a pint affordable in British pubs but helping an industry which has been in overall decline continue on its long road to recovery.

"No doubt many of our 160,000 members will be raising a glass to the Chancellor this evening to toast another brilliant Budget for British beer drinkers."

Never mind that - bingo players will be raising their dabber pens after a surprise announcement that taxes in bingo halls are to be halved, from 20% to 10%.

Yet even this fairly innocuous Budget element has rather backfired following a ludicrous online poster (pictured above), tweeted by Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps.

The text, which reads "Cutting the bingo tax and beer duty to help hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy", frankly defies belief.

Lib Dem Treasury minister Danny Alexander was so stunned, he thought the poster was initially a spoof, adding it was "rather patronising" and "demeans some sensible things in the Budget".

It was not all good news for the gambling industry, though - duty on fixed-odds betting terminals increased to 25%.

Finally, among the main duties, tobacco will rise by 2% above inflation and this escalator will be extended beyond the next general election.

Just quite whether Mr Osborne will still be Chancellor after 2015 will be decided at the ballot box - but there are some signs, at last, of an economic recovery.

Growth has been revised upwards to 2.7% this year and 2.3% next year, then by 2.6% in 2016 and 2017.

Meanwhile, government borrowing is set to fall year-on-year until 2018-19 when there is expected to be a first Budget surplus since 2001.

That is still half a Parliament longer than originally planned and, consequently, Mr Osborne has set a cap on the welfare budget at £119bn for 2015-16.

The restriction includes child benefit, incapacity benefit, winter fuel payment and income support - but does not include the state pension or Jobseeker's Allowance.

Labour has said it will NOT oppose the cap when it is voted on in Parliament next week, but leader Ed Miliband still condemned the coalition for running an "economy of the privileged, by the privileged, for the privileged".

It has not really been Labour, though, which Mr Osborne has thought about when compiling this Budget.

Instead, the looming prospect of UKIP damaging the Tories' chances of being re-elected has been tackled head on.

Nigel Farage's party will surely still do well at the European elections in May, its euroscepticism being its best-known and arguably most potent policy.

But when it comes to who runs the country in just over a year's time, it might be a different matter altogether.

Those ageing, straying true blue Tories may well realise the futility of a UKIP vote in their constituency so that they drift back to their natural home.

And for those of a certain age still making up their minds, Mr Osborne's pensions overhaul could well be the deciding factor.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Six Nations: Ireland give O'Driscoll the perfect send-off

BRIAN O'DRISCOLL bowed out in perfect style as Ireland won the Six Nations with a momentous victory in Paris.

The Irish prevailed 22-20 at the Stade de France for only their second win on French soil in 42 years - and, as the scoreline suggests, the match was a thrilling, topsy-turvy affair.

Despite tries from Jonathan Sexton and Andrew Trimble, Ireland went in 13-12 down at the break after Yoann Huget had brilliantly tapped the ball back for full-back Brice Dulin to score.

Ireland, knowing from earlier results that any win would do, also knew they had to wrestle back control of the match at the start of the second period.

Typically, O'Driscoll obliged with a drive for the line which was cut just short - but, with the French defence still in disarray, Sexton capitalised and converted, adding a penalty to stretch Ireland's lead to nine points.

Still the French would not lay down, and a sustained spell of pressure resulted in Dimitri Szarzewski scoring at the base of the posts to cut the lead back to two.

Indeed, it seemed, with 10 minutes left, as if France might just sneak it - just as they had against England on the opening weekend.

But a sliced penalty by replacement scrum-half Jean-Marc Doussain was simply a precursor for the complete mess which the French made of the final attack of the game.

Vincent Debaty found Damien Chouly in plenty of space on the flank but his pass, with which he had a lot of room for error, was clearly forward.

Chouly crossed the line but it was all in vain. Ireland had prevailed, and O'Driscoll had his fairytale finish.

Earlier, England had made a gallant attempt at closing in on Ireland's points lead of +49 by scoring a half-century in Rome against wooden spoon winners Italy.

Mike Brown (2), Owen Farrell, Jack Nowell, Mako Vunipola, Manu Tuilagi, and Chris Robshaw all scored in a 52-11 win but Leonardo Sarto's intercept try for the Italians left England relying on the French.

This was effectively as a consequence of their galling opening weekend defeat in Paris.

Yet, despite that early set-back, and if a little rueful, Stuart Lancaster should reflect on this Six Nations with great encouragement.

Save for a poor first few minutes and last few minutes against the French, England could have even won the Grand Slam.

Scotland were kept pointless for the first time against the Auld Enemy since 1978, before Lancaster's men held their nerve to come back from 10-3 down against Ireland.

Next came Wales, the reigning champions who denied England a Grand Slam in Cardiff a year ago with a crushing defeat.

England gained a morsel of revenge, playing some wonderful running rugby in the beautiful spring sunshine to win 29-18 and take the Triple Crown for the first time since 2003.

The tries came from Danny Care and Luther Burrell with only Leigh Halfpenny's boot keeping the Welsh in the contest beyond half time as they made a wretched second defence of their title.

Beaten by both Ireland and England, Wales' best match of the championship came against a typically enigmatic French side who did not turn up on the day.

Of course, there was also a 51-3 thumping of Scotland to enjoy - but that said more about the visitors to the Millennium Stadium than the home side.

Reduced to 14 men after just 22 minutes following Stuart Hogg's dismissal for a reckless tackle, the Scots' defence caved in either side of half time, and they conceded seven tries in all.

The result rounded off another terrible Six Nations for Scotland who have still failed to win more than one match in consecutive tournaments since the expansion in 2000.

Undoubtedly, the most painful defeat was being kept scoreless by England on the second weekend in the Calcutta Cup match.

Murrayfield has been a venue of many broken English dreams in recent years - but Scotland were so pathetically bad, there was even the cheeky suggestion that they should withdraw from the championship to save themselves further embarrassment.

That almost came in Rome, with Italy leading the Scots 20-18 with just one attack left.

A Duncan Weir drop goal spared Scotland's blushes on that occasion but, in a reversal of fortune, the Scots could do nothing as France left it equally late to win their match 19-17.

Indeed, the French were the kings of the late win in this tournament in which, as their +1 points difference demonstrates, they played as unconvincingly as ever.

Narrow wins over England and Scotland, that narrow defeat to Ireland and a heavier one against Wales, only victory over Italy was secured with any degree of comfort.

For Philippe Saint-Andre's men, this Six Nations was certainly a case of "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose".

Much the same could also be said of the Italians. The encouraging signs in the set-piece keep threatening an Italian breakthrough but the Azzurri run out of steam far too easily.

Of the 21 tries they conceded, two-thirds were in the second half, and this was Italy's 10th wooden spoon in 15 years.

By contrast, this was only Ireland's second championship in the last 29 years, the other coming in the Grand Slam-winning year of 2009.

There was no Grand Slam this time but it is difficult to see at least one Leinster man at least worrying too much about that.

Ireland had, of course, worked tirelessly for this triumph. Nevertheless, for some weeks now, the Paris air must have been sprinkled with fairy-dust in anticipation of O'Driscoll's arrival.

He did not let his country down. Instead, he gave it a St Patrick's Day to savour.

(T) Tries


1 Feb 14:30WALES 23-15 ITALYMillennium Stadium
1 Feb 17:00FRANCE 26-24 ENGLANDStade de France
2 Feb 15:00IRELAND 28-6 SCOTLANDAviva Stadium
8 Feb 14:30IRELAND 26-3 WALESAviva Stadium
8 Feb 17:00SCOTLAND 0-20 ENGLANDMurrayfield
9 Feb 15:00FRANCE 30-10 ITALYStade de France
21 Feb 20:00WALES 27-6 FRANCEMillennium Stadium
22 Feb 13:30 ITALY 20-21 SCOTLANDStadio Olimpico
22 Feb 16:00ENGLAND 13-10 IRELANDTwickenham
8 Mar 14:30IRELAND 46-7 ITALYAviva Stadium
8 Mar 17:00SCOTLAND 17-19 FRANCEMurrayfield
9 Mar 15:00ENGLAND 29-18 WALESTwickenham
15 Mar 12:30ITALY 11-52 ENGLANDStadio Olimpico
15 Mar 14:45WALES 51-3 SCOTLANDMillennium Stadium
15 Mar 17:00FRANCE 20-22 IRELANDStade de France

66 Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)
64 Owen Farrell (England)
51 Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
27 Jean-Marc Doussain (France)
26 Maxime Machenaud (France)
21 Tommaso Allan (Italy)
20 Mike Brown (England)
19 Greig Laidlaw (Scotland)
16 Danny Care (England)
15 Luther Burrell (England), Yoann Huget (France), George North (Wales), Andrew Trimble (Ireland)
14 Dan Biggar (Wales)
12 Luciano Orquera (Italy)
11 Paddy Jackson (Ireland)

4 Mike Brown (England), Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)
3 Luther Burrell (England), Yoann Huget (France), George North (Wales), Andrew Trimble (Ireland)
2 Michele Campagnaro (Italy), Danny Care (England), Alex Dunbar (Scotland), Rob Kearney (Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Wales), Leonardo Sarto (Italy)
1 Tommaso Allan (Italy), Hugo Bonneval (France), Sean Cronin (Ireland), Alex Cuthbert (Wales), Brice Dulan (France), Taulupe Faletau (Wales), Owen Farrell (England), Gael Fickou (France), Wesley Fofana (France), Joshua Furno (Italy), Cian Healy (Ireland), Jamie Heaslip (Ireland), Chris Henry (Ireland), Stuart Hogg (Scotland), Tommaso Iannone (Italy), Paddy Jackson (Ireland), Fergus McFadden (Ireland), Jack McGrath (Ireland), Jack Nowell (England), Louis Picamoles (France), Chris Robshaw (England), Tommy Seymour (Scotland), Dmitri Szarzewski (France), Manu Tuilagi (England), Maku Vunipola (England), Sam Warburton (Wales), Liam Williams (Wales), Rhodri Williams (Wales), Scott Williams (Wales)