Town keep watch on Wearside

Ipswich Town eyes will be on the Stadium of Light today as Sunderland, the highest-placed Coca-Cola Championship team in action, look to close the gap on the top two.

By Dave Vincent

Ipswich Town eyes will be on the Stadium of Light today as Sunderland, the highest-placed Coca-Cola Championship team in action, look to close the gap on the top two.

Only an unlikely 6-0 victory at home to Burnley would take the Black Cats into second on goal difference over Town, but manager Mick McCarthy will be more than happy just to pick up the win which would put his side level on points with Ipswich, who play leaders Wigan on Tuesday. The match sees the return to Wearside of Steve Cotterill, who was assistant manager to Howard Wilkinson during an ill-fated five-month spell during the 2002-3 season.

However, he is having more success with the Clarets and their defensive record of conceding just seven away goals all season is the best in the division. Cotterill himself is looking forward to the match, despite the fact he will serve a one-match touchline ban at his former club.

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Defender Steve Caldwell is missing for the Black Cats after injuring a hamstring in training but midfielder Jeff Whitley could return after a three-match absence.

Wigan Athletic transfer target Robbie Blake is expected to play for the Clarets. Leaders Wigan have been knocked back yet again in their pursuit of Blake, ahead of their visit to Portman Road on Tuesday.

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Burnley have spurned a fourth bid - of £1million - for their 13-goal top scorer. Blake, who was impressive for Burnley when they played at Ipswich in October, is Paul Jewell's biggest target as he aims to increase his side's scoring power to help gain automatic promotion.

His pursuit of the Burnley skipper, who gave his club the lead at Portman Road on October 16 before Matt Richards struck a late equaliser, has become an open secret.

Burnley are determined to hold on to their top scorer but it remains to be seen if the cash rises to a level they cannot afford to refuse.

Jewell's latest offer of £700,000, with a further £300,000 if the Latics are promoted to the Premiership, has now been revealed. But the Clarets are resolute and are desperate to keep hold of their skipper. Their chief executive, Dave Edmundson, said: “Yet again we have turned down their offer.”

Jewell is convinced that Blake, who played under him in the Premiership with Bradford, wants to move to the JJB Stadium but it is unclear whether Wigan, who have already had bids of £500,000, £600,000 and £700,000 rejected by the Clarets, will come back with another offer.

His increasing desperation to bring another striker in has fuelled speculation that Wigan will have to withstand Premiership raids on their prolific strike duo, Nathan Ellington and Jason Roberts, when the transfer window opens in January. If Burnley can refuse these overtures the price could rise still higher.

In other games today, fourth-placed Reading, at home to QPR, could take advantage of any Sunderland slip, while West Ham, in fifth, will look to close the gap at Preston. Sheffield United, in sixth, host Cardiff.

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