Ipswich set up thriller
As expected, the race for the Holy Grail goes nail-bitingly down to the wire after Ipswich convincingly secured the result they needed yesterday to make sure the battle for the Championship's second automatic promotion place is decided on the final afternoon of the campaign.
Ipswich, level on points with Wigan but with a vastly inferior goal difference, must better the Latics' result next Sunday to join Sunderland in the top flight. Otherwise it will be the play-offs yet again for the Tractor Boys.
Wigan's valuable point in the lunchtime kick-off at Preston kept them in pole position for that automatic berth, heaping pressure on Joe Royle's team who then knew that anything less than victory over Crewe would consign them prematurely to another nerve-wracking playoff appearance.
Not a happy prospect. There can be few teams with a worse play-off record than Ipswich who have only succeeded once in six previous attempts, another reason why they simply had to keep automatic promotion alive until next weekend's winner-takes-all finale.
The result all of Suffolk craved looked a foregone conclusion since Crewe had gone 18 games without a win. But Dario Gradi's underdogs were just as desperate for points, scrapping for their lives at the other end of the table to save their Championship status.
It made for a riveting contest and what a start we got. A full house gave Ipswich a tremendous ovation and after six minutes they were in front. Crewe lost possession halfway inside their own half and Ian Westlake laid a terrific ball into the path of the prolific Shefki Kuqi, just voted the club's player of the year, who scored his 18th goal of the season with the outside of his right foot.
The young Crewe team were rocked by a second Ipswich goal six minutes later, skipper Jim Magilton finishing off a mesmerising four-man move to drive a shot beyond Clayton Ince.
It was men against boys and the men kept pouring forward. Twice Darren Bent almost added to Ipswich's lead.
Crewe had been chasing shadows against the division's highest scorers but leading up to half time they suddenly discovered some belief and sprang a couple of dangerous counter-attacks, just to remind the fans there was still time for an unlikely comeback.
It never stood a chance. Within six minutes of the restart, Tommy Miller was allowed to run into the heart of the Crewe defence and his sublime 20-yard shot into the corner of the net put the result beyond doubt.
Yet there was more agony to come for Crewe. Nine minutes from time, Miller added a fourth and within 60 seconds substitute Pablo Counago volleyed home number five to secure Ipswich's joint biggest win of the season before David Vaughan grabbed a last-minute consolation for the visitors.
What a way to say farewell to the Portman Road fans, for the regular season at least. Now for next Sunday when Ipswich visit Brighton, a club fighting for Championship safety, and Wigan host playoff hopefuls Reading. Hold on to your hats for a thrilling climax.
Andrew Warshaw (sport.telegraph)