With around a quarter of the season left to play, the battle for Premier League survival is reaching fever-pitch. By my reckoning there are six teams who remain in real peril and last weekend saw all of them in action (albeit not all in the Premier League). QPR, Reading, Wigan, Aston Villa, Southampton and Sunderland are those with most to fear heading into the run-in, with Newcastle and Stoke seemingly (but not necessarily) safe, nine points clear of the drop-zone. This article will focus on these six likely candidates and attempt to identify which three are the most likely to feel the trapdoor open beneath their feet come the end of May.
Aston Villa’s 1-2 win at the Madejski Stadium could prove to be a vital result in Paul Lambert’s battle to beat the drop. A true six pointer if ever there was one, ended with the Villains taking all three points, condemning the Royals to their fourth straight league defeat and, , costing Brian McDermott his job. The victory pulled Villa out of the bottom three and, with their nearest rivals Wigan in FA Cup action, gave them a three point cushion over Roberto Martinez’s side who sit in eighteenth.
The performance, and result, came as part of an upturn in recent form which has seen Villa’s young side win two of their last four (one goal defeats at the hands of Arsenal and City accounting for the losses in that sequence). As one crucial result is garnered so another must win game appears on the horizon, and this Saturday’s clash with rock bottom QPR couldn’t be more important for either team. Villa will enjoy home advantage over a QPR side that’s won just twice away from home all season, however, having scored fewer goals and picked up fewer points at Villa Park than on the road this year, a positive result is by no means guaranteed, particularly given QPRs revival under Harry Redknapp.
Victory for Lambert’s side would see them take a giant leap towards safety and, if Christian Benteke (the stand-out player in the bottom half of the Premier League) continues to show the form that he has so far this season, it’s entirely plausible. Villa still have Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea to play this season, however the crucial games for them will be against QPR, Sunderland and their final day match up with Wigan. If they can take maximum points from these three fixtures, I can see them staying up; a failure to do so however, would leave them facing the prospect of relegation from Premier League for the first time since its inception.
Reading, the team beaten by Villa last week, look certain to go down. As predicted on this blog at the beginning of the season (glad I got one thing right at least), they have found being amongst the elite a little too hot to handle. Zingarevich, the Reading chairman has this week sacked manager Brian McDermott after one loss too many. The timing of his dismissal, coming with just nine games to go, raised eyebrows, however it’s my belief that Zingarevich is banking on capitalising on the brief upturn in form that bringing in a new manager often provides. It’s a big risk, but a calculated one and, given the Royals’ woeful run of form, one worth taking at this juncture.
Will it help? Possibly. Will it be enough? I very much doubt it. Unfortunately, Reading simply don’t have a strong enough squad to compete adequately in the top division. The quality they have to call upon is less than that of the other teams around them and, despite a valiant season-long effort, that’s the reason why they find themselves where they are.
Trips to Old Trafford and the Emirates in their next two league outings are hardly welcome and, assuming they lose those two, Reading could find themselves properly adrift of safety before long. With Manchester City and Liverpool still to face, Reading must focus on getting points from their home games against Southampton and QPR and from their visits to Carrow Road, Craven Cottage and Upton Park, all tough venues from which to emerge victorious. Whilst the Royals remain in with a chance of beating the drop, unfortunately for them, it is beginning to look more and more like a snowball’s chance in hell with each week that passes.
Harry (Houdini) Redknapp has been called in to, once again achieve, what looked only a couple of weeks ago, like the most improbable of results – keeping QPR in the Premier League. Rangers have been plum last in the table almost since their opening day humiliation at the hands of Swansea. Last Saturday, the master of top flight escapes guided his current side to what was only their fourth win of the season against a dreadful Sunderland, and what an important victory it could prove to be.
QPR now sit four points off safety; still bottom of the league, however in the best form of all six sides battling against the drop, having won three and lost just two of their last ten games. Rangers’ game against Villa this week is obviously a must win if they’re going to have a real chance of survival, along with their upcoming matches against Reading, Wigan and Stoke, the latter two of which come at Loftus Road.
Failure to take at least ten points from twelve in these fixtures will almost certainly doom QPR to life in the Championship next year, especially when you consider that they face Arsenal, Newcastle and a trip to Anfield in the month of May. QPR have the momentum at the moment but they must keep it going if they are to achieve the impossible and stay in England’s top division. For my money, they do not deserve to stay up, given the way they’ve approached their time in the top flight off the pitch and the apparent lack of effort from a large number of their players on it, over the course of this and last season. However, we’re all well aware that what you deserve and what you get in life can be two very different things and it would take a brave man to bet against Harry coming up trumps again.
Wigan, Wigan, Wigan. The modern day Southampton; perennially involved in the struggle for survival yet apparently immune to actually going down when all is said and done – or so it has been until now. Can they do it again? Can they turn around their form across the entire season and put together a run-in which will see them to safety? Undoubtedly they can, however whether they willor not could be a different matter. If they are going to, they’ll need to start this weekend when they play host to Newcastle.
The Latics’ form is not good at all. They’ve won just twice in their last ten games, losing five of those, and at home they’ve only won twice all season. Only Reading have lost as many games as Roberto Martinez’s side have this season, with just QPR and Reading having recorded fewer wins – they are, therefore, in the bottom three purely on merit.
On paper, Wigan have one of the easier run-ins of those involved in the relegation scrap. The Latics have Tottenham, Manchester City and Arsenal still to play, however, Tottenham may well be distracted by their Europa League progress, as may Newcastle who they entertain on Sunday. Teams such as Swansea, West Brom, Norwich and West Ham are likely to have little to play for by the time they come up against Wigan and, of course, the showdown against Villa on the final afternoon will almost certainly prove crucial.
The one fly in the ointment for Martinez and Wigan this year could come in the form of their successful FA Cup run. Wigan haven’t had to deal with any such thing during Martinez’s tenure to date, routinely exiting the competition in the early rounds in years gone by. That has left them the chance to focus solely on the imperative of Premier League survival at this time of year. This season however, the Latics are in a Wembley semi-final and, up against Championship opposition, they have a great chance of making it one step further to the showpiece event which used to round-off the football season in England.
Will this glittering occasion, a first for all the Wigan players, prove to be a distraction from the task at hand as it has been for other teams in the past? Will it spur the side on to Premier League survival yet again? Only time will tell. What is certain though, is that over the next eight weeks, Wigan will have Wembley on their minds.
So to Southampton and Sunderland, the two teams currently occupying sixteenth and fifteenth respectively. Saints adjusted to life back in the top flight well after a nightmare beginning to the campaign saw them stuck in the bottom three for much of the early part of the season. The sacking of Nigel Adkins was surprising, particularly as it came when the side was in the midst of a good run of results which had seen them steadily climb the table.
The new man Mauricio Pochettino began life at St. Mary’s well, without a defeat in his first three games in charge, includeding a fantastic 3-1 victory over Manchester City. However, that has been his only victory as Saints boss and recent defeats at the hands of Newcastle and QPR have seen Southampton sucked very much back in to the relegation quagmire.
Liverpool and Chelsea are the next two visitors to St. Mary’s so any points picked up from those two games would come as a welcome bonus. Nine points would likely see Saints safe and with home games to come against notoriously poor travellers West Ham, West Brom and Stoke City (on the last day) along with trips to Reading and Sunderland to come, I have little doubt that Southampton will be playing Premier League football next season.
With four losses and two draws in their last six games, Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland are in the worst form of the bottom six clubs. Last week’s home capitulation to QPR summed up the Black Cats’ season thus far – lacklustre. O’Neill’s side currently sit six points above the drop zone, however that would be reduced to three should Wigan win their game in hand.
With Manchester United, Newcastle (away), Everton, Chelsea and Tottenham still to play, this weekend’s home game with Norwich takes on a massive significance, with three points perhaps vital to their chances of remaining in the top flight. Seven points from the next nine games would likely be enough to keep Sunderland afloat, however if they fail to beat Norwich, it would be a struggle to see where those points will come from. The trip to Villa Park at the end of April looks like being a massive game, along with the visits of Stoke and Southampton in the following weeks. Whatever happens, it is going to be a very nervous last nine games for Mackems, that’s for sure.
It very much looks like being three from these six who’ll be plying their trade in the Championship next year. What is unusual this year is that no team has, as yet, been cut fully adrift. That’s what makes it even more difficult to predict, with any degree of certainty, just which three will be going down. If I had to make a prediction, which for the purposes of this article I do, I would say that Reading will definitely go, along with Wigan and one of either QPR or Sunderland. How correct I will be proven is anybody’s guess; to find out we’ll all have to keep on watching as, once again, the relegation battle appears destined to go right down to the final day.
Please feel free to comment with your predictions for the drop.
Redknapp image by TheSportReview. O’Neill image by dalli58