R oberto Martinez has a bee in his bonnet about the January transfer window. It is unsettling, he reckons, to have players approached and agents in action at a time in the season when crucial games are taking place, and he believes the disruption affected Wigan Athletic's concentration and has quite possibly cost them points.
"At Christmas we are like a supermarket for the rest of the clubs in the league," he says. "Anyone who wants a player seems to think: 'Let's see who Wigan have got'. But at the same time as I am fending off enquiries and the players are talking to half a dozen agents about possible moves, we are supposed to win matches. It is not fair on the smaller clubs.
"I think the winter window should shrink to maybe a fortnight, with a weekend off in the middle, so that deals can be done and players are moved around before the second half of the season starts up, with everyone knowing where they stand."
The Wigan manager may have a point, and he certainly has players on his books who would attract bigger clubs. Leighton Baines, Antonio Valencia and Wilson Palacios have already moved onwards and upwards from Wigan, and it seems only a matter of time and money before Charles N'Zogbia, Hugo Rodallega and Maynor Figueroa eventually follow.
No one at Wigan resents players using the club as a stepping stone, Martinez least of all, although a transit-camp reputation may help explain why a capable manager is still waiting for back-to-back league victories after two seasons in charge, and why a side boasting players who can attract interest from the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool finds itself needing to win at Stoke today to preserve its Premier League status.
Martinez predicted a couple of weeks ago that Wigan would need to win their last two games to stay up, and they at least gave themselves a chance with the stirring comeback that led to West Ham being relegated last week.
What Martinez could not have predicted was that winning two successive league games for the first time under his stewardship to finish on 42 points still might not be enough to guarantee survival. If there is a winner in the Wolves-Blackburn game, and Birmingham and Blackpool also win this afternoon, 42 points would only lift the Latics to third from bottom.
There are a lot of ifs in that scenario, of course; in all probability a win at Stoke would be enough to keep Wigan up, and anyone who goes to the Britannia Stadium and takes all three points deserves to succeed, whatever the circumstances.
Yet although it is easy to scoff at Blackpool's chances of saving themselves at Old Trafford or the possibility of Birmingham turning around a dreadful run of form by springing a surprise at Tottenham, you never quite know on the last day. Blackpool were two goals to the good against United with 20 minutes to play at Bloomfield Road in January after all, and that was when United were trying to win the title. Now they have nothing left to play for, and the suggestion that Alex Ferguson's reserves will be outdoing each other in an attempt to win a place at Wembley next weekend overlooks the strong possibility that the United manager will have known his side for the Champions League final from the moment Schalke were beaten in the semi-final.
At least Tottenham have something to play for, and with a home game against struggling Birmingham they ought to be confident of securing fifth place and pipping Liverpool to the remaining Europa League place. That's fine, as long as you are convinced Spurs actually want to be in the Europa League next season. The result at Anfield last week could be regarded as a sign that Liverpool were not all that bothered about the less exciting of UEFA's two competitions, and after the season Spurs have just had in the Champions League, a return to the Europa's Thursday-Sunday treadmill does not seem to be filling Harry Redknapp with enthusiasm.
The Europa League is fine for teams with limited European experience -- Stoke, Bolton or Fulham, say -- but can only be a comedown for anyone with a Champions League pedigree. It would be entirely understandable if both Liverpool and Spurs wanted to give themselves a clear run at a top-four finish next season, without the complications of a minor European contest that goes on for too long.
The usual compromise seems to be to take the Europa seriously before Christmas then get out before the going gets tough in the league; although in the context of today's relegation struggle it cannot automatically be assumed that Spurs will be massively motivated by the prospect of European qualification. They do not have quite the same incentive as Manchester City have to finish above Arsenal and bypass the Champions League's qualification round.
But no one has such an urgent incentive as the clubs playing for survival. "We might as well forget about the league, we just have one more cup final to win," Martinez says. "There will never be a better time to win two in a row, that's for sure, although whatever the result at Stoke we have lost fewer games than ever before in the Premier League this season, so that is a real improvement."
Perhaps Martinez is too idealistic for a dogfight, whereas Alex McLeish, with two relegations behind him, is the real Chumbawamba. "I've been knocked down a few times and I've got up again pretty quickly," the Birmingham manager says. "We are looking for one last gigantic effort and the players are certainly capable. It has been hard this season but they have battled for every single point. It has been a hugely competitive league and three teams will go down that probably don't deserve to."
It is hardest of all to argue Blackpool deserve the drop, yet as Ian Holloway has just pointed out in apocalyptic terms, the end of the world will arrive unless the Seasiders can do something no one else has managed this season -- beat the champions on their own ground. One feels Blackpool deserve some sort of award just for getting this far in such admirable style. Unfortunately that is not how leagues work.
Just for the record, but mostly for the rare opportunity to claim prescience, I wrote back in August that Newcastle and West Brom would stay up while West Ham and Blackpool would go down with Wigan. So far so Nostradamus, except I do not expect the present bottom three to be the final one. Based on last week's results, I give Wigan a fighting chance of escape, with either Birmingham or Blackburn being sucked down at the last.
Sunday Indo Sport