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A look at the promotion challengers

AFTER a trip to Stoke and with the play-offs just around the corner, now is a good time to look at how the Second Division promotion challengers have performed against Wrexham.

AFTER a trip to Stoke and with the play-offs just around the corner, now is a good time to look at how the Second Division promotion challengers have performed against Wrexham.

That will also give me a chance to avoid focusing on Saturday's game, a 1-0 loss which, for Wrexham at least, had `end of the season' written all over it.

And Potters fans better look away because, out of the teams vying for promotion, Stoke seem the least impressive - on this evidence at least.

They look a strong, solid side but are nothing special. They were outplayed at the Racecourse and grabbed another narrow win over the Red Dragons at the Britannia Stadium when Marc Goodfellow provided a moment of inspiration. Breaking from a corner, he dribbled past a few players and set up Andy Cooke to slot home on the half-hour mark.

"We shot ourselves in the foot but that's nothing new for us," said manager Denis Smith afterwards. "They caught us on the break and it should have been stopped."

Until then Wrexham were playing the best football and had the early chances. Waynne Phillips had a few shots blocked and also got in the way of Denis Lawrence's goal-bound header.

As the news filtered through that Blackpool were thrashing Bristol City, guaranteeing the Potters a play-off place, the game turned into a damp squib.

The away side's three-man defence - consisting of a Trinidadian, a Singaporean national and a trainee - was looking solid, with Dan Bennett especially assured at the back.

But the revelation of the match was returning keeper Kristian Rogers.

He's always had talent, yet Rogers seems to be too sensible to be a keeper - they're usually as mad as a bottle of frogs.

In the 35th minute Deon Burton had an acrobatic effort brilliantly saved by the Wrexham rookie, and in the second half he took crosses well and produced a fantastic stop from sub Chris Iwulemo's late header.

Wrexham's best chance fell to Paul Barrett early in the second period. Hector Sam's lay-off found the Geordie who cracked a shot against Neil Cutler when clean through. Apart from that, the small travelling contingent didn't have much else to shout about.

The front two of Sam and Andy Morrell were often left isolated but there was the sense that if Wrexham had something to play for they could have got a favourable result.

"It didn't look like we were going to open them up," said Smith. "We had a few chances but nothing much, but neither did they.

"We played reasonably well, but we still lost. I want to be positive, but in the end I can't keep accepting that we're getting beat.

"I should be pleased because the team I support has made it into the play-offs, but they didn't need us anyway because Bristol City lost."

Smith won't like it, but I'm tipping Stoke to remain in Division Two. In the meantime, this Saturday's Brentford v Reading match will go a long way to deciding the successful Division One applicants.

The Royals need just a point to secure promotion and they are strong enough to get it - they will not want to experience another play-off final like last year.

That would leave Brentford, Stoke, Cardiff and Huddersfield in the play-offs. Against Wrexham the Bees have been most impressive, easing to a pair of 3-0 victories. They have craft in midfield in the form of Paul Evans and two very strong strikers in Ben Burgess and Lloyd Owusu.

Huddersfield are a very physical side and steamrollered Wrexham at home to win 5-1, but they may not provide the craft needed to open up defences away from home.

How Stoke miss the craft of Graham Kavanagh in midfield and the goals of Peter Thorne. Both now ply their trade for Cardiff. Kavanagh was the difference between the Bluebirds and Wrexham and, unfortunately, I can see Cardiff playing Brentford in the final. With the `home' advantage of the Millennium Stadium, the Bluebirds should go through.


Stoke: Cutler; Brightwell, Shaniuk, Handyside, Clarke (Vandeurzen 61); Gudjonsson, O'Connor, Dinning (Henry 52), Goodfellow; Burton (Iwelumo 84), Cooke.

Wrexham: Rogers 8; Whitley 7, Bennett 7, Lawrence 6 (Morgan 72), Pejic 6, Holmes 6; Phillips 6 (Thomas 60 6), Ferguson 6 (Edwards 80), Barrett 7; Morrell 6, Sam 6.

Subs not used: Walsh, Sharp.

Mail's man of the match: Kristian Rogers.

Referee: Alan Kaye 7.

Attendance: 14,298.


David Holmes
Chief News Reporter
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