And then there were two. The Premier League campaign, which has captivated fans all season, reaches its final fortnight, with plenty still to be decided.
But the race for the biggest prize of all – the league title (and a championship play-off for a Super League place) – appears to be a two-club contest now, with either Portsmouth or Brighton likely to emerge as champions.
Pompey may be considered favourites after taking a three-point lead over their south-coast rivals last weekend, but manager Perry Northeast will no doubt be imploring his players not to take things for granted.
And rightly so – because they still have to face the team who are having the biggest impact of all on the title race.
West Ham United, whose inconsistency during a season of rebuilding has cost them a realistic chance of a title tilt themselves, have had a sensational April, taking eight points off three clubs who at the start of the month were genuine title contenders.
Their double in a fortnight over Cardiff City – then one of the favourites – wrecked the Welsh club’s hopes.
In-between, they became the only team to take a point off Charlton Athletic since mid-December – when once again it had been West Ham who had proved the thorn in their neighbours’ side.
As if to highlight what has undermined their campaign, Julian Dicks’ side then lost at home to Lewes before returning to their title-damaging form, holding Brighton to a 2-2 draw last Sunday.
In the space of four weeks they have torpedoed Cardiff’s chances, more or less ruined Charlton’s hopes of a late surge to the title and set back Brighton’s efforts.
Who is to say they will not have the ultimate shout on the destination of the Premier League title when they visit Portsmouth on what looks set to be another dramatic dénoument of the season?
Northeast’s team have a three-point cushion but an inferior goal difference. And with Brighton facing relegated Keynsham Town in both their final matches, Pompey are likely to need four points from their last two fixtures to pip them.
Anything less than a win for Pompey at home to Queens Park Rangers on Sunday is likely to take the pressure they are under to another level, meaning they would probably have to beat West Ham to win the league.
But after a blip at the end of last month and the beginning of this, confidence in the Portsmouth camp must be sky-high again following four successive league victories – plus a Hampshire Cup triumph – since crashing 6-3 to Charlton on April 5.
Ini Umotong and Gemma Hillier, two of their talismanic goalscoring figures this season, are back among the goals – the former hitting another hat-trick and the latter the final goal in Pompey’s 4-1 victory at Gillingham.
The number they have conceded is the joint-second-best in the league, and the club have escaped the sort of injury crisis that helped scupper their title bid last term.
But they know West Ham on May 10 present possibly their biggest test of the entire season, and even Sunday’s home encounter with QPR cannot be taken for granted after the London side, who have only just secured their Premier League status for another season, gave them a fright in the reverse fixture a fortnight ago before Pompey ran out 3-2 winners.
Brighton, meanwhile, will be disappointed if they don’t take maximum points from their two games against Keynsham, despite the West Country club’s considerably improved form in the past couple of months.
And after surrendering two points at West Ham last week, James Marrs’ team are unlikely to be in the mood to allow such an eventuality to happen again.
They will probably argue that with Portsmouth in pole position, the pressure is off them, but the fact remains they are likely to have to win both Keynsham games to have a chance.
They have the best defensive record in the entire league, having conceded only 21 goals in their 20 games, and with Marrs and a large number of the players experiencing final-day agony last season with Gillingham, when Coventry City pipped them to the title – ironically by beating Portsmouth – they have that chastening experience to fall back upon as they see out this campaign.
Charlton’s title hopes are surely over – even if they were to win their final two league games, against Cardiff and Plymouth, they would need Brighton to slip up and Portsmouth to implode to have a chance of snatching the league crown.
But they are set to enjoy one of the club’s best seasons since their halcyon days of a previous generation.
Already the holders of the Ryman Cup, and with the Premier League Cup and Capital Cup finals to come in the next few days – not forgetting their reserves’ success in the Premier Reserves League – the club could end the season with four major trophies.
But the league title is unlikely to be one of them.
The first team’s success has been based largely on their free scoring – and in particular the sensational form of striker Kit Graham, who last week reached 50 goals for the season with a couple during Charlton’s 7-0 victory over Copsewood Coventry, slightly overshadowing team-mate Gemma Shepherd’s hat-trick.
Premier League Southern title contenders
Copsewood’s defeat – while not surprising, given Charlton’s superb form – has prolonged their agony as they battle to survive in the top flight of the winter pyramid with a shoestring squad.
They were once again without several key players on Sunday, including their first-choice goalkeeper. Manager Ryan Conneely said: “To have so many players missing again meant the game was almost a write-off before it had even begun.”
And yet, with Gillingham losing their final match at home to Portsmouth, the Coventry side have an excellent chance of staying up, requiring two points from matches against Tottenham Hotspur and Keynsham to send the Gills down.
May 3 – Queens Park Rangers (h) Victory absolutely essential for Northeast’s team, with a daunting showdown to come on the final day of the season. Defeat would almost certainly cede the momentum to Brighton.
May 10 – West Ham United (h) Potentially the title decider, with Julian Dicks’ team having proved they are capable of taking points off anyone. Portsmouth are more than capable of winning it, but how would they react to the pressure of having to in their final game?
May 3 – Keynsham Town (a) Defeat would not only be unthinkable, it would almost certainly hand the championship to their rivals. Brighton are surely too good for Keynsham. And yet in the past seven weeks the bottom side have recorded their first league win – against Gillingham – taken a point off Lewes and scored three against Spurs (not to mention restricting Super League Watford to only 2-1 in the FAW Cup).
May 10 – Keynsham Town (h) Final-day nerves, too, for Marrs’ players. But the harsh experience of so many of their side last season, when at Gillingham, and the prospect of a bumper crowd urging them on at Culver Road mean Brighton will surely fulfil their obligations, leaving the title’s destiny in the hands of Portsmouth.
May 10 – Tottenham H (h) Like West Ham, Spurs have flattered to deceive this season. But with a game in hand, they could still finish as high as fourth. Conneely’s team will not be confident of taking anything from this game, but they have proved in recent weeks, with wins over QPR and Keynsham and a draw against Portsmouth, that with a full-strength side they can hold their own in this division.
May 17 – Keynsham Town (a) They’ve beaten them once, but assuming that they still need something out of this game, the pressure really will be on. Not as straightforward as they might once have hoped. A draw against Spurs would mean they would need only one more point from this showdown. And that could prove their best hope.
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