Things are hotting up in the Championship, as we head towards the conclusion of one of the tightest and most enthralling seasons in second flight history. No less than eleven clubs go into the final two weekends with a chance of promotion, either automatically or through the play-offs.

I for one am hoping that Sunderland and Derby County go up automatically, and that they are joined by either West Brom or Wolves. But this is no arbitrary assignation of allegiance.

Far from it, in fact, for I believe that there is a supreme state to which the English top-flight must strive to return, composed of the twenty clubs that have had the greatest impact over the competition’s 119-year history.

I have defined impact by seasons played, titles and other trophies won and average attendance figures. My All-Time English Top Flight is as follows:

1. Arsenal
2. Aston Villa
3. Blackburn Rovers
4. Bolton Wanderers
5. Chelsea
6. Derby County
7. Everton
8. Leeds United
9. Liverpool
10. Manchester City
11. Manchester United
12. Newcastle United
13. Nottingham Forest
14. Portsmouth
15. Sheffield Wednesday
16. Sunderland
17. Tottenham Hotspur
18. West Bromwich Albion
19. West Ham United
20. Wolverhampton Wanderers

All these teams, with the surprising exception of West Ham, have won the First Division or the Premiership at least once. The only former First Division Champions not to be included are Preston North End, Huddersfield Town and Burnley, as none of these teams have ever appeared in the Premiership.

Furthermore, Preston North End last won the league in 1890 and Huddersfield haven’t been champions since 1926 (although that triumph marked the final leg of an outstanding hat-trick of consecutive titles).

Bolton edge out Ipswich Town (1978 FA Cup winners and 1981 UEFA Cup champions) by virtue of their longevity, current Premiership status and four FA Cup wins. Nottingham Forest’s place is guaranteed by the remarkable back-to-back European Cups they won in 1979 and 1980.

All this should mean that I’m hoping Leeds avoid the drop into the third tier of English football. But as any self-respecting United fan – and any fan of decent, honest football – I’m obviously hoping they plummet like a stone.

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Mourinho - master or madman?Mourinho really is losing it. The controlled manner of Chelsea’s 1-0 victory over Liverpool last night was highly impressive, and yet following the game Mourinho chose to focus on the penalty he felt his team were denied for a handball by Liverpool right-back Alvaro Arbeloa which occurred a good two feet outside the penalty area.

“I just go for facts, and again it is a fact. I don’t think anybody can say it was not a penalty. It was a clear penalty, and I don’t know why. It’s happening, it’s happening, it’s happening.”

Are these the words of a great manager or a madman?

Therein lies the fundamental dichotomy in Mourinho’s character which polarises opinions about him in such a pronounced manner. On the one hand is the shrewd tactician, urging his team to attack a Liverpool side and thereby negating the impact of Benitez’s adventurous 4-4-2 which had reaped such handsome rewards in previous away games against PSV Eindhoven and Barcelona.

But on the other hand is the whingeing moaner who sulks like a petulant child at every single decision that doesn’t go his way. He should have been revelling in another accomplished performance from his side, but he chose to moan about the referee. Those who hail him for trying to deflect attention (and pressure) away from his team fail to acknowledge the irreparable damage such behaviour does to his reputation.

His latest outburst creates the impression that he is a genuinely paranoid, compulsive complainer. And no matter how much success he brings to Stamford Bridge this season, it is something football fans are unlikely ever to forget.

He scoops, he scores!

April 25 2007

Paul Scholes’s delicate pass to Wayne Rooney in the build-up to United’s second goal in last night’s 3-2 victory over AC Milan put me in mind of the outrageous scooped finish from Karel Poborsky that put paid to Portugal in the 1996 European Championships.

And while looking for the goal on YouTube, I came across this little beauty from the poodle-permed former United misfit, scored against Braga in 1998.

Even more reason to rue the complete non-event that was his United career following his £3.8 million move from Slavia Prague.

United's match-winner Wayne Rooney tussles with Alessandro NestaAnother memorable European night at Old Trafford, and another impressive performance by United, particularly in the second half. 

This compilation sums thing up nicely. Good to see a YouTube video put together with a bit of finesse. 

With Milan 2-1 up and apparently in control, I began to fear that United hadn’t learnt anything from the lesson Milan so coldly and ruthlessly taught them in 2005. 

But the sustained intensity of their attacking play was a fine thing to behold, and with all the pre-match focus on Cristiano Ronaldo, it was perhaps inevitable that Rooney would prove to be the match-winner. 

His first goal owed a lot to Scholes’s sublime scooped through ball, but he nonetheless showed commendable strength and composure to hold off Nesta’s challenge and push the ball past Dida. 

The winning goal showcased Rooney at his instinctive best, firing home first-time before Dida had had a chance to set himself. The celebration showed how much it meant to him. No open-mouthed fist-pumping here. Instead, having slid into the corner on his knees he turned around, put his head in his hands and sunk to the ground. This – you realised – was a goal he will cherish forever. 

In spite of United’s stellar season, Rooney hasn’t been on top form (although his 23 goals this season represent his best scoring figures to date). He’s drifted in and out of games, and his temperament continues to let him down. 

But by rising to the occasion in such spectacular fashion last night, he suggested he is learning to ally patience and perseverance to his already formidable talents.

Ronaldo (obviously)8:54 p.m. (or thereabouts), Saturday April 21st, the San Siro. Supposedly overweight/past-it/not-the-player-he-once-was Brazilian forward Ronaldo demonstrates that he still has an eye for the extraordinary.

This impudent chested finish helped Milan to a 3-1 win over
Cagliari
, and gave Il Fenomeno his seventh goal in only 12 games for the Rossoneri.

Looks like there’s life in the old dog yet.

I can’t imagine anyone ever pulling off a nutmeg as audacious as this one by Argentina’s Juan Román Riquelme, during his first stint at Boca Juniors.

As if having his back to the hapless defender wasn’t impressive enough, he’s also about four yards away from him, and when he executes the ‘meg only one of his feet is on the ground. Absolutely delicious.

Mind you, this one isn’t bad either…

Goal of the Season?

April 19 2007

I didn’t think anyone would score a better individual goal than David Nugent’s superb effort for Preston against Crystal Palace in the Cup earlier this season, but Lionel Messi’s goal in Barcelona’s 5-2 victory over Getafe in the Copa del Rey last night comes pretty close.

Observant observers will note that it bears more than a passing resemblance to Diego Maradona’s famous goal against England in the quarter-final of the 1986 World Cup.

And this handy website lets you compare the two. Shame they couldn’t have stuck Nugent’s goal in there as well…